Hiking along Mt. Harvard's North Cottonwood Creek Trail in the middle of Colorado's gorgeous San Isabel National Forest

A Walk in the Woods

For most of us, life is a daily grind of office hours, commuting in traffic, parenting responsibilities and a plethora of life stressors. Because our livelihoods typically demand close proximity to bustling urban areas, a majority of people live in densely populated cities or crowded suburbs. Additionally, many of us have become addicted to our electronic devices. Just where are we going with all of this? Here’s a sobering statistic—the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors and often 10 hours a day or more on electronic devices. Sadly, there’s even a term associated with a lack of time spent outdoors in nature. It’s called “Nature Deficit Disorder” and it’s an all-too-common modern affliction.

You may already inherently know that spending time in nature feels good. Though any kind of time spent in nature can enhance health and happiness, there is something exceptional about spending time in the forest. Simply walking through the woods, noticing the foliage, flowers and the forest floor, gazing up at towering trees, taking in the scent of fresh pine needles and perhaps listening to the songs of birds or even catching a glimpse of wildlife—engaging all of the senses in such a way can definitely leave you feeling invigorated, peaceful and restored. Although we may already know that spending time like this in nature is good for us, maybe you don’t even realize just how beneficial it is for your health.

For starters, forests, which are typically located far, far away from congested polluted urban areas, are filled with oxygen producing trees which of course play a key role in purifying our air and water. Since forests contain a higher concentration of oxygen than urban areas, it makes perfect sense that when you spend time in the woods, you are exposing your body to the cleanest, freshest air possible. Research has shown that plants also produce a chemical called phytoncides. Phytoncides have been proven to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones while also helping to curb depression, anger and anxiety. And apparently evergreens (pine, cedar, spruce and conifers) produce the largest amount of phytoncides compared to other trees, thus spending time in an evergreen forest appears to produce the greatest health benefits. Indeed, where there are trees and plants, individuals are healthier and happier.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, immersing oneself in a forest “strengthens our immune system, reduces blood pressure, increases energy, boosts our mood and helps us regain and maintain our focus in ways that treeless environments just don’t.” And people don’t have to engage in intense physical activities such as hiking, trail running or mountain biking, to reap these benefits. Anyone can take a short stroll through or simply sit for 20 minutes in a wooded forest environment to gain the health benefits. It’s about simply being in nature. In Japan, there is even a term for this healthy submersion into the woods…it’s known as “forest bathing” or “shinrin-yoku.” In 1982, Japan launched a national program aimed at encouraging forest bathing. The initiative began after researchers recognized that humans have a biological need to connect with nature. Their studies led to the understanding that forest bathing can also significantly help improve sleep and reduce fatigue while increasing vigor and vitality. What’s more, the concept of forest bathing is easy to do—most notably it is important to appreciate the silence of the forest—silence is restorative. Don’t hurry—slow walking is recommended or even trying things like yoga, meditation or tai chi can enhance the experience. Most of all, slow down enough to engage all of the senses, which will undoubtably lead to a feeling of calm.

After the year we have all just experienced around the globe, we can’t think of a better way to decompress and recharge than to plan a morning or afternoon surrounded by the healing power of the forest. Who’s ready to head to the mountains for a nice deep breath of fresh, cool, forested air? ~KM


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