Forest bathing can relieve stress, boost immune function: UBC scientist

The term dates back to the 1980s in Japan and a therapeutic exercise called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.

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Whether it’s the cost of living or a climate emergency that’s stressing you out, there’s a nature-based therapy for it.

During the pandemic, health officials urged people to get out into parks and wooded areas as a way to deal with anxiety, sometimes referring to the practice of forest bathing.

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Although it has become fashionable, the term dates back to 1980s Japan and a therapeutic exercise called shinrin-yoku, which aims to heighten the senses through connection with nature.

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Now researchers from UBC’s forestry faculty are studying the science behind the health benefits of taking a break in the woods.

Guangyu Wang, a professor in UBC’s forestry department of forest resource management, says that during the pandemic they surveyed hundreds of students before and after taking them to forest therapy.

She said the therapy included walking through Pacific Spirit Park, meditating and having a tea ceremony in the park.

They also brought mats and did yoga on occasion, and experimented with meditation. Students were encouraged to notice the sounds and smells around them in the park, and how that made them feel.

Wang is too director of UBC’s multidisciplinary natural therapy institute and conducts laboratory experiments that replicating forest environments to include sounds and smells, and using virtual reality headsets to help students escape the stressors of college.

We’ve had students who can’t fall asleep and they’re like, ‘Wow, I fell asleep in five minutes,'” she said Saturday.

During the pandemic experiments at Pacific Spirit Park they discovered that a two-hour forest therapy session can reduce blood pressure and stress.

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Along with the surveys, they took blood pressure readings, and there were noticeable improvements in the students, some of whom went from having slightly elevated blood pressure to normal blood pressure after the therapy, he said.

Many people in Vancouver are lonely or feel a lot of pressure, but when they are together and connect with nature, it can reduce anxiety and give life meaning, Wang said.

They feel happier and can also improve sleep quality, he said.

Wang said some people described being able to think more clearly after therapy and feeling more positive about what was stressing them.

She noted that participants who are parents said after the forest swim that they were motivated to take their children to nature because they had a greater understanding of how important it is for mental health.

Forest bathing differs from forest walking because it is more structured and involves a deliberate and conscious connection with nature. Wang said the goal is to integrate forest therapy into the public health system.

The Canadian Medical Association has endorsed a BC Parks Foundation plan to prescribe nature. It’s called PaRx, a national nature prescribing program in which healthcare professionals work with patients to develop personalized natural plans for improved health.

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