The Doctor Prescribing a Walk in the Woods
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because better health is a walk in the woods away.
Dr. Qing Li spent a formative week camping with friends in 1988. They went to the Yakushima forest in southern Japan, which brought him back to the poplar forests and apricot trees of the village in China where he was born. He remembered playing hide-and-seek with friends and being among animals. It was so far removed from his life as a student in Tokyo.
The trip left him invigorated but curious. He actually felt healthier. But where did this feeling come from? He was convinced that nature had something to do with it. It seemed like common sense, but there was little scientific backing. “Some people study forests. Some people study medicine,” says Qing. He decided to study both.
Qing, 56, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, is often referred to by academics, news media and fans as the foremost expert on shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” The idea is that simply being around nature has measurable health benefits. While the principles can sound somewhat New Agey, that’s where Qing comes in, giving a scientific argument for a walk in the woods. With Qing’s supportive research providing the impetus, there are now 62 designated forest bathing spots in Japan — many within dense cities — used by up to 5 million people a year. And his ideas have spread around the world.
His suggestion for urban planning is simple: “Plant trees as much as possible.”
Shinrin-yoku didn’t begin with Qing. In 1982 the Japanese government started a program to promote health and conservation by getting citizens back to nature. The Akasawa forest was the first area chosen for the experiment. As a scientist, Qing later got on board with this public plan and returned to Yakushima — where he had his first revelation — in 1990 with a preliminary research group to study how nature affects people. In 2004, he helped form the Forest Therapy Study Group to collect evidence. And since then he’s obtained a mountain’s worth.
According to Qing’s research, only two hours of being within nature can lead to a host of benefits like reducing blood pressure, lowering blood sugar levels, improving memory and boosting the immune system. Average sleep increased 15 percent, white blood cells responsible for fighting cancer shot up and the stress hormone cortisol dropped. All that’s not from heavy exercise or diet — just walking aimlessly and slowly (without a phone in your hand) under a fragrant canopy. Next up for Qing: research into the practice’s impact on cancer.
Make no mistake, you don’t have to leave the city for this. In fact, with some planning — as Japan has done — urban spaces can include suitable parks and forest bathing paths. Every Monday, Qing takes his students for a walk in Tokyo’s parks. His suggestion for urban planning is simple: “Plant trees as much as possible.” According to The Nature of Americans report by conservation firm DJ Case & Associates, 70 percent of those in the U.S. were very or somewhat satisfied with nature near where they live. Although in a survey by World Cities Culture Forum of large cities, New York City’s 27 percent of available land devoted to green space (the highest in the U.S.) is far less than a city like Oslo, which tops the list with 68 percent of available nature. If we lose these islands of nature, it would be devastating, explains Qing. “We will lose our health and happiness. I also will lose my health and happiness.”
Some of Qing’s support for forest bathing comes from a small number of limited studies touting the benefits of phytoncides — or tree-derived smelly compounds. In the West, those are known as “essential oils,” and popular with multi-level marketers. Statistics from Transparency Market Research says that the industry will be worth some $27.5 billion by 2022. And although it’s illegal to do so — as the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the products — proponents of the oils often claim benefits that range from helping with ADHD to acne. To Qing’s credit, he only cites scientific research in support of using the oils.
“I am a scientist, not a poet,” Qing writes in his book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, released last year. But he often slides into the poetic when describing his research. The Yakushima forest has a “mysterious, glowing green” while Akasawa is an area of “emerald-green rivers” he writes. Groves of Japanese cypress have “dark red trunks of peeling bark and deep-green needles on graceful branches.”
Japanese photographer Yoshinori Mizutani has worked on projects capturing the act of forest bathing in beautifully blurry, intimate images. It’s a different kind of documentation than Qing performs, but Yoshinori speaks about nature in similar terms — beneficial and somewhat mysterious. He says when he looked for images of nature in his forest bathing project he used his intuition. “I use my eyesight, of course, but I also feel something spiritual as well.”
Qing’s ideas have spread beyond his adoptive island, across the Pacific to San Francisco where Julia Plevin heads a forest bathing club she founded in 2015. Plevin says that while studying in New York City she noticed city life affecting her health. After some research Plevin found forest bathing and Qing’s work. She even went to Japan last year for a forest bathing symposium and met Qing, whom she called “joyful” and “unassuming.” Now she leads private and corporate nature retreats as well as a monthly meetup for Bay Area folk. Her club has grown to around 1,000 members. And she wrote her own book, The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing, that will be out in March.
“It’s [his] research that’s made the movement possible,” says Plevin of a sensation that’s much more than a walk in the park.
Read more: The Native American healer reviving the medicine of her ancestors.