Living in a city has many wonderful things to offer, but the fast-paced work and modern lifestyle can be stressful and draining on your mental and physical health. Learning how to step out of the fast lane and embrace the benefits of reconnecting to the natural world through all your senses can really improve your wellbeing in the future.
In 1950, only 30% of humanity were urban dwellers, but by 2050, 66% of the human population is projected to live in cities. As a species, we are growing exponentially whilst our living conditions are becoming tighter, faster and more polluted.
There are increasing concerns that we are losing our connection to the natural world due to growing urbanisation. A two-year study in the UK found that 10% of children hadn’t been to a natural environment – such as a park or botanic garden – for over a year. In the hustle-and-bustle of our city lives, it can be easy to forget about nature and the wonderful influence it can have on us.
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese practice that is literally translated as forest (shinrin) bathing (yoku). It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
The practice is not a new form of exercise, but simply involves being outside and having immersive, connective experiences in nature. Shinrin-yoku practices focus on engaging all the senses at once, such as meditation in a green space, tranquil slow walking and simply taking the time to mindfully feel and notice the natural world around you.
In Japanese, the word karoshi means ‘death by overwork’. Shinrin-yoku is now being increasingly prescribed by doctors to combat the pressures of overworking and stressful lifestyles. In countries such as Japan and Korea, nationally certified forest therapy trails have been designated by the Government Forestry Departments as a non-extractive forest use that helps people manage stress and fatigue. Medical research on people following these trails is showing how human health is boosted by even small doses of ‘vitamin N(ature)’.
What are the benefits
Researchers in Japan and South Korea are building a body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. Their research is helping to establish Shinrin-yoku and forest therapy throughout the world.
Shinrin yoku has been shown to produce a range of positive physiological effects. These include:
- stimulating the immune system
- soothing the nervous system
- reducing cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate
- improving mental health, mood, energy levels, cognition and sleep
- Increasing happiness, optimism and hopefulness
One study from Dr Qing Li found that the number of Natural Killer cells – the cells responsible for fighting off diseases and cancer in the body – rose significantly after spending only three days on a forest trip. The increased number of NK cells also lasted for more than 30 days after the trip.
“Forest Bathing or Nature Connection Walks help people to restore and regenerate themselves through remembering the simple pleasures in the natural world around them. Sensory immersion in nature helps us to access the calm alert state we try to reach through meditation but often find difficult to achieve.” – Louise Kiddell, certified nature and forestry therapy guide
It is possible in the city
Studies have shown that the more trees you have growing along a street, the lower the prescription rate of antidepressants. Having an average of 10 more trees in a city block improved how some people rated their health by a level comparable to an annual income increase of $10,000.
But finding a forest in the middle of an expanding city can be difficult. In Sydney, Centennial Parklands has introduced a program of Nature Connection Walks to help Sydneysiders maintain their health and wellbeing and provide meaningful connective experiences with nature in the heart of the city.
Our expert guide Louise Kiddell is one of the first certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guides in Australia. Louise guides participants through activities inspired by Shinrin-yoku, including sensory awareness walks, guided meditation and bush tea ceremonies. You can join the full 4-week program or attend a one-off session.
If you want to bring your family along to learn more about the healing effects of nature, try our WILD PLAY programs, which are specially designed by our nature-play experts for carers and their children.