We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for millennia. Since time immemorial, forests have helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases; they have relieved us of our worries, eased our troubled minds, restored and refreshed us. The sounds of life, the scent of soil, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air—these things give us a sense of comfort, they help us to relax and to think more clearly. We know this deep in our bones. It is an intuition, an instinct, a feeling that is sometimes hard to describe. But what lies behind it? What is this secret power of the forest that makes us so much healthier and happier?

Since time immemorial, forests have helped us to heal

I am a scientist, not a poet, and I have been investigating the science behind that feeling for many years. Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine, to find out all the ways these environments improve our well being. Until recently, there was little scientific evidence to support what we have always known about the healing power of the forest. It was not until 2004—when I, with others, founded the Forest Therapy Study Group—that scientific investigation into this matter began in earnest. Since then, I have been researching the beneficial effects of these wild green spaces on human health by studying shinrin-yoku (森林浴). Shinrin (森林) means “forest” in Japanese, and yoku (浴) means “bath.” Shinrin-yoku is “bathing in the forest atmosphere” or, as it is more often translated, forest-bathing. Forest-bathing is not exercise, nor is it an esoteric meditative practice. It is simply being, connecting with the forest through all our senses.

Over the last 17 years, I have discovered that exposure to nature is as vital to our well-being as regular exercise and a healthy diet. That immersion in green spaces can help to boost our immune systems, lower blood pressure and heart rate, aid sleep, improve mood and energy levels, lift depression, sharpen cognitive processes, and increase anticancer protein production. Outside my own work, a growing body of evidence shows that greater exposure to nature can also lead to a lower likelihood of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental ill-health, childhood myopia, and, ultimately, death. In an eight-year study of over 100,000 women in the United States, those with the most vegetation around their homes had a 12 per cent lower death rate than those living in the least green areas (even adjusting for risk factors, such as age, ethnicity, smoking, and socioeconomic status). In a study of Tokyo residents aged 75 to 90, those with plentiful green space and street trees in their neighborhoods had a 74 per cent likelihood of survival over a five-year period, versus just 66 per cent for those with very little nearby greenery.

Exposure to nature is as vital to our well-being as regular exercise and a healthy diet

With its astounding benefits, forest-bathing is becoming a focus of public attention in Japan. It is now recognized as both a therapeutic activity and a method of preventing disease and promoting health. Slowly, acknowledgement of nature as medicine is catching on worldwide. Doctors from New Zealand to Scotland have begun to prescribe “green prescriptions,” such as listening to birdsong or taking a walk in a natural environment. The “Nature Prescriptions” calendar, created by RSPB Scotland in partnership with NHS Shetland, suggests daily activities such as “Step outside—be still for three minutes and listen,” and to “Really look at a lichen.” Creating and improving public pockets of greenery—especially in neighborhoods whose residents already face high health risks—would be a simple, powerful, practical public health intervention that would help to prevent and mitigate health inequalities.

With its astounding benefits, forest-bathing is becoming a focus of public attention

Forests occupy 68 per cent of the land in Japan, meaning forest-bathing is accessible to those who can afford the time and expense of the trip. But, with our busy lifestyles, and unequal societies, we shouldn’t expect people to make a journey to receive nature’s tonic. Instead, we must bring the best of the forest environment into people’s habitats. Doing so not only provides all the well-being benefits I’ve explained, but also presents additional benefits in urban contexts: urban trees remove tons of pollution, store tons of carbon and help mitigate extreme temperatures. Their root systems absorb water and help with excess rainfall. They provide respite and relief from noise and dirt. Trees are a vital and integral part of our urban lives, as important a part of a city’s infrastructure as roads and broadband—and much more beautiful than either.

Clearly, there are vital benefits to being immersed in an ecologically rich, verdant environment, and I expect many more will be discovered. To quell the stress epidemic of our times, and avoid countless other easily preventable harms, we must protect people’s right to have contact with nature — and bring the power of the forest to everyone.

Extracted from Nature Is A Human Right: Why We're Fighting for Green in a Grey World, by Ellen Miles. Text taken as an extract from The Secret Power Of The Forest: From A Feeling To A Science by Professor Qing Li, MD, PhD.

Nature Is A Human Right is published by DK and is out now.


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