There are health benefits from hiking and being in a forest. Trees can have a positive effect on people’s health and well-being. Science has been exploring this concept for decades. And I have been reading and experiencing these effects for many years. Let me tell you about what I have learned.
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A Walk In the Woods
I was struggling to find the words while writing this post. I was tired and the sentences were not flowing as I typed on my computer’s keyboard. Frustrated, I packed it in and went for a walk.
I ended up going out to a local conservation area, called Mission Island Marsh. It is a quiet area of town with some unique species of trees and birds.
I had a lovely walk in the woods. It had just rained so the air was crisp and fresh, releasing all the scents of the forest. The birds were out in abundance, including ducks and geese in the streams and ponds. All my frustrations and writers block just vanished.
Nature’s Remedy for a Bad Day
With a cleared mind, I started thinking about this post again and the words started flowing. I wish I had paper and pen right there. I was full of energy and excited to write it all down now. But I had to wait to come home to type it all up on my computer.
I had personally just experienced what this post is going to tell you. The benefits of a walk in the woods are tremendous. Nature has a way of taking a frustrated and jumbled day and make it productive and beautiful again.
For multiple centuries poets, musicians, artists, and philosophers have used nature to think and create. I wrote about this in a post titled Why These Famous People Walk.
But poetry and philosophy aside, science also tells us about the many health benefits of nature.
Let’s explore this further.
What Is Forest Bathing?
The term forest bathing comes from a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, which translated means “forest-bath”. There is no water involved. It is simply the practice of being out in nature and using all your senses to take in the forest.
Standing in the wild space among the trees, you can hear the rustling of leaves and sounds of the birds. You can feel the breeze on your cheeks and the solid ground under foot. The smell of pine or other fragrant foliage fills the air, as you look out into the beauty that Mother Nature provides.
It reads like a peaceful setting, doesn’t it? Well, that is because it is.
Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness
A book about the science behind forest bathing by Dr. Qing Li
Forest Bathing vs Hiking
Forest bathing is not the same thing as hiking, however. They are two different activities. But they can be combined to have powerful effects on both mental and physical health.
Forest bathing is standing in the wild space among the trees. There is no exercise is involved, except walking to get to a quiet, natural location. Simply being in nature is what forest bathing is about.
Hiking is a sport. It is an extended walk in the woods or natural setting. The primary purpose for a hike is exercise.
But both occur out in nature surrounded by trees. The health benefits are similar, although with hiking you get the added health benefits from exercise.
Health Benefits of Forests
There is a long list of health benefits from trees. Being out in the forest not only improves our mental health, but also our physical health.
Science has been investigating this from the 1980s and has determined that many of the touted benefits have merit. Here is a list of some of those benefits:
- Boosts the immune system
- Lowers heart rate & blood pressure
- Reduces stress & lowers stress hormones
- Improves mood
- Reduces anxiety & depression
- Increases attention and ability to focus
- Improves energy levels
- Releases creativity
- Decreases hostility & anger
- Allows for better sleep
- Results in faster recovery from surgery
- Reduces perception of pain
- Increases social connection with others
- Improves memory
- Increases kindness & generosity
- Enhances vitality and feeling of being alive
- Connects us with nature
- Has some anti-cancer effects
And all these things are from just being out in nature. Simply standing among the trees can have profound effects on your health and well-being.
Additional Health Benefits of Hiking
When it comes to hiking, there are many more benefits to add to the list. As we have seen, hiking adds in an exercise component to forest bathing. Thus, hikers also enjoy all the benefits that exercise has for us, as well as all the benefits that trees produce.
Hiking is a full body workout. Of course, your legs do most of the work. You will work those quads, hamstrings and glutes. It is a great way to get a killer butt!
But, your arms also help you climb over rocks and help propel you forward. And your core is always engaged to help you balance on the trail. This is especially true if you are carrying a backpack, which keeps those core muscles working hard.
Here is a list of some of the other benefits of hiking that science has discovered:
- Improves overall fitness
- Builds muscle strength
- Improves fat metabolism
- lowers blood sugar & risk for diabetes
- Reduces cholesterol & risk for heart disease
- Improves bone density & reduces risk for osteoporosis
- Increases flexibility and balance
- Lower risk for respiratory illnesses
- Improves antioxidant & oxygen capacity in blood
Wow! Those are a lot of benefits from simply walking in the woods.
Can Trees Prevent Cancer?
I am all about finding ways to help reduce cancer risk. One of my hobbies is scouring medical and science journals for information on things I can do to lower cancer risk. So, when I came across some articles on the anti-cancer effects of the forest, being an avid hiker, I was all over that concept.
Chemotherapy from Trees
Did you know that many of the chemotherapy agents used today were derived from trees and plants?
Let’s look at some of the more common ones
Taxol and Taxotere
These powerful chemotherapy agents, used to treat many different cancers, are from compounds found in the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)
I was given Taxol for breast cancer. So, I am very thankful for the Pacific Yew Tree and the scientists that discovered its anti-cancer effects.
This drug is used to treat metastatic breast cancer. It was discovered in the African medicinal tree, Maytenus ovatus.
Used to treat ovarian and lung cancer, topotecan is from the Happy Tree, Camptotheca acuminate, which is related to the Dogwood. In fact, three other chemotherapy drugs have been discovered in studying this plant, nicknamed the Cancer Tree.
These are just three examples, among many, of trees containing compounds that derive drugs that save so many lives.
Tree Pheromones Can Help Fight Cancer
Drugs are not the only cancer fighting tools we get from trees. Just being out in the forest and exposed to trees can help too.
That big breath of fresh forest air you took in on your walk contained tree pheromones. You can smell it when you are in the woods. These are the scents used by the trees to communicate with each other and protect themselves from insects and harmful bacteria.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
New York Times Bestseller book about the social network of trees by Peter Wohlleben
Yes, it does seem rather outlandish that trees can ‘smell’ and ‘talk’ to each other through scents, doesn’t it? But botanists have been able to isolate some of these compounds. And some of them have been found to have a positive effect on animal and human health.
These plant chemicals are called phytoncides. Also known as wood essential oils, these compounds have been shown to boost the immune system and increase activity of cancer killing cells in our blood. A 2-hour walk in the forest produces a significant increase in natural-killer cells that can last for as long as 30 days afterwards.
Natural Forests vs Urban Parks
I am blessed. Surrounded by abundant forests, I can hop in my car and be in the woods in about 20 minutes. I know that others are not so lucky.
But you don’t need to be in a wild space to experience the benefits of trees. Urban areas and parks can also benefit your health and well-being.
In fact, one study showed that planting trees on an urban street was enough to boost the health of the local residents. The researchers found that planting just 10 trees in a city block increased health to the equivalent of being 7 years younger.
What if you cannot go outside?
Being outside among the trees is the best way to experience the health benefits. While research has discovered some of the reasons, such as phytoncides, for these benefits, they admit that they don’t know enough. There are some positive effects that cannot yet be explained by science.
But if you just can’t get outside to experience these wonderful effects, you may be able to get some benefit from purified wood essential oils in the form of aromatherapy.
There is some scientific research published showing that inhalation of the essential oils from Japanese Cedar, Eucalyptus, Pine and other plants can have similar positive effects on both mental and physical health. The science is not conclusive, however.
I am no expert in aromatherapy or essential oils. I do not use any of these products myself. So, I really cannot advise you on using these products.
Essential oils are isolated and concentrated plant extracts. They may mimic the smells you would experience in the wilderness.
It is important to point out that there are no quality standards established for aromatherapy and essential oils. The FDA regulates claims and labeling on these products, but not quality. Many things, such as processing, packaging, storage, and handling can affect the quality of the product that arrives at your door.
Some concentrated essential oils may interact and interfere with prescription medications. The FDA considers them drugs if any medical claims are made. It is always best to consult with a health care professional before using these products.
It is so much better to go for a walk in the woods, if you can.