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What is Shinrin-Yoku?

by Timber Press on June 28, 2018

in Natural History

Simply put, shinrin-yoku is the practice of walking slowly through the woods, in no hurry, for a morning, an afternoon or a day. Learn more about the science behind and benefits of forest bathing with international expert and author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, Yoshifumi Miyazaki.

When the phrase was first coined, the idea was more of a marketing exercise to attract people to the many beautiful forests of Japan, but since then myself and a number of other scientists in Japan and other countries around the world have begun to study the physiological and psychological effects of nature, and specifically forests, on human health and wellbeing. It is the understanding that somehow we feel better when we are surrounded by nature that has inspired this research.

In March 1990 I conducted the first experiments to study the physiological effects of shinrin-yoku on the Japanese island of Yakushima. With the cooperation of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) we began our experiments to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of subjects walking through a forest. But for around a decade afterward, little progress was made in the collection of scientific and physiological data. Since 2000, however, science has moved on and we now have new techniques to measure brain activity and autonomic nervous activity, both good indicators of the level of stress in the human body.

These last 10–15 years, data has accumulated rapidly. The findings have been extremely encouraging; it is clear that our bodies still recognize nature as our home, which is important to consider as increasing numbers of people are living in cities and urban environments each year.

In recent years, stress-related diseases have become a social problem on a global scale. Without even realizing it, we are over-stimulated and stressed by today’s man-made world, and that makes our bodies more susceptible to disease. It is not surprising that attention is turning to shinrin-yoku as an example of a natural and low-cost way to alleviate this problem.

It is around seven million years since our ancestors started evolving into the modern humans we are today. During this process of evolution we have spent more than 99.99 per cent of our time living in a natural environment. Our bodies are adapted to nature. Shinrin-yoku cannot treat disease, but it can have a preventative medical effect that makes falling ill less likely, and can help reduce the strain on health services worldwide that stress-related illnesses cause each year.

It is only over the last 10–15 years that enough data has accumulated to allow us to shape the practice of shinrin-yoku with science. In 2003 I proposed the term “forest therapy” to describe shinrin-yoku supported by scientific evidence. What started as an intuitive-based therapy has become an evidence-based therapy, and can now be considered to be a preventative medicine.

There are currently more than 60 official forest therapy trails in Japan, designated for the practice of shinrin-yoku by the Forest Therapy Society. There is also a growing number of doctors who are certified in forest medicine.

 

Yoshifumi Miyazaki is a university professor, researcher and the deputy director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences. He has published several books on the effects of forest therapy, and in 2000 Yoshifumi received the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Award for clarifying the health benefits. He is also the winner of an award from the Japan Society of Physiological Anthropology.

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