Humans are in the throws of a great migration… to indoors and to cities,” stated Florence Williams, journalist and author of The Nature Fix when speaking at the Palmetto Conservation Foundation’s spring author event.
For 20 years Williams lived in Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains immersed in open space and nature preserves.
In moving to Washington, D.C., five years ago, perspective changed drastically as morning walks took her along a canal under the flight path at Reagan National Airport. Beltline traffic, noise pollution, and graffiti left her feeling anxious, depressed, and in a brain fog. Unsettled in her new urban environment, she decided to find out what scientists had to say about wellbeing and nature.
On assignment for National Geographic, Williams traveled the globe to study the effects of nature on physical and mental health. In Japan where 80 percent of the population live in cities and depression and suicide from worker stress is high, the government is using the country’s park system for the sensory practice of “forest bathing.” Participants soak in the forest atmosphere with eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Forest bathing is part of Japan’s national health care plan.
In Tokyo Williams joined an experiment comparing participants’ physiological changes in cortisol level, heart rate, pulse rate, and blood pressure during a 15-minute city walk and a 15-minute forest walk under the direction of physiological anthropologist Yoshifumi Miyazaki, the leading researcher on the health benefits of forest bathing. All subjects recorded a lowering of the stress hormone cortisol and the other measurements in the forest setting walk.
Miyazaki notes that since humans have lived in the natural environment for five million years, their physiological functions are best matched to forest settings. Modern society places us under stress. Information technology has added “technostress.”
His data is reaping cooperation between forestry and medical groups. South Korea has adopted a National Forest Therapy Center for citizens who suffer from digital addiction, work stress, and intense academic pressures.
Finland, a country of boreal forests, hosts International Forest Therapy Days in August. One can forest bathe anywhere in the world where there are trees…just don’t bring devices along.
Branching Out, an ecotherapy program of Forestry Commission Scotland, explores the effects of exposure to woodlands and green space to treat a range of health problems. The Scottish Government encourages prescriptions of “greenspace use” by general and clinical practitioners.