Getting Out Into The Forest Is Healthy
It will come as no surprise to learn that getting out into the fresh air is good for us, but new research has shown exactly how much benefit a forest walk can bring us compared to an urban environment.
Previous studies have been conducted into the natural environment’s influence on our health. These studies have indicated that natural surroundings help us to reduce negative emotions such as fatigue, sadness and anger. Exercise and fresh air is promoted as a way to manage stress, and it’s also thought that forest surroundings may help support illnesses such as alcoholic depression.
How The New Research Was Measured
The current study took a group of 625 young Japanese men, which is larger than previous study groups, into natural and urban environments. It used heart rate variability (HRV) as a marker for autonomic nervous activity in both environments.
Autonomic nervous activity is the control our nervous system exercises over functions such as heart rate, digestion, and our fight or flight adrenaline response. It’s largely out of our control and therefore good for subconscious measuring.
Heat rate variability was used as a marker because it’s easily measured and recorded without discomfort to the study subjects. The participants in this study used a portable heart rate monitor which allowed them to walk freely.
What Happened In The Study
The group was split in half with the first group exposed to forests before the urban sites, whereas the second group was first exposed to urban sites. The urban sites were either downtown or near to Japan Railways (JR) stations.
The participants were all non-smokers and they were not allowed to drink alcohol or exercise heavily the day preceding the study. Their intake of caffeine was controlled too. None of the subjects had a previous record of psychiatric or physical illness.
The result showed that approximately 80% of the participants had an increase of parasympathetic activity when in forest surroundings as opposed to the urban environment.
The parasympathetic system is the part of our nervous system that promotes relaxation. It’s sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ function as opposed to the ‘fight or flight’ response. Parasympathetic activity generally slows down our bodies to instil calmness and save energy.
Why Do Forests Promote Relaxation?
It’s thought that humans have biophilia which roughly translated means ‘love of life’. Our ancestors lived in natural environments such as forests that provided safety, shelter and food for millions of years - so the relaxation the majority of us feel in forests is perhaps an evolutionary characteristic, a simple calmness trigger from the feeling of security.
For the 20% of participants that didn’t benefit from natural surroundings the researchers suggested biophobia - a fear of the great outdoors and in particular phobias of spiders and insects which triggered a negative response in the forest.
So - the results show that unless you have a fear of the great outdoors its beneficial to strap on your walking boots and immerse yourself in nature.
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