Take A Hike... And Live Longer

12/20/2015 by

“I bet I could live to 150 if only I can get outdoors again.” –Geraldine Page as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful



No doubt, simmering in sunlight or drinking in the smell fresh pine can work magic on a weary soul.  But could being outside actually ward off disease and make us live longer?  In 2010, a landmark Japanese study was able to prove that spending quality time with nature has undeniable, profound effects on our both our bodies and minds that can, in fact, affect our longevity.


Hanging out in the forest is standard preventative medicine in Japan.  In 1982,  the government coined a term for it, “shinrin yoku” which translates into “forest bathing”.  The idea is that you go for a leisurely stroll, breathe in the fresh air, and take in nature with all five senses - a practice inspired by Buddhism.   


Noticing that a lot of good vibrations were coming out of forest bathing, the government officially decided to gather data.  Scientists assigned one group of folks to shinrin-yoku.  They took another group and sent them on a walk through an urban environment.  The next day, the groups swapped assignments.  What they found was that being among the plants and trees increased immune-boosting white blood cells,  lowered concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, reduced pulse rates, and decreased blood pressure.  So, was it because nature was quieter?  Because we respond better to greens than greys? 


One theory (called Attention Restoration Theory) is that we can attribute part of the miracle to nature demanding so little of our attention.  Sounds crazy, right?  Great waterfalls, grand canyons, vast oceans… how can we not pay attention to that?     Nature’s magnificence is certainly captivating, even awe-inspiring, but how it commands our awareness is completely different than the mental demands of every day city life. Dealing with strangers who cut you off, stop and go traffic, negotiating with your toddler-  all these challenges are draining and after a while, can take its toll on our minds and bodies.   However, the sand on a beach, the woodpecker in the forest, the red rock formations in the desert- they don’t demand much at all, if anything.  In the great outdoors, we’re given a free pass to think as much or as little as we’d like.  What the concrete jungle taketh away from us, nature giveth back.  Being amidst the juniper and the pine restores our mental functioning in the same way that food and water restores our bodies.


Neurological studies show that spending time outside -and even just looking at images of nature- stimulates and quiets different areas of our brains,   slows down brain waves, and helps improve memory and concentration. 


On a physiological level, the outdoors is endowed with hundreds of phytoncides, an array of aerosols emitted from plants that acts as natural pesticides.  When we breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a white blood cell called natural killer cells, or NK. These cells kill tumors and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest adventure lasted for more than 30 days. 


Phytoncides are also responsible for all those other great things found in the Japanese study:  lowered cortisol, pulse rate, and blood pressure, as well as increases in anti-cancer proteins.  So not only does exposure to natural settings induce a sense of serenity, the very building blocks of our cells are responding in a positive way.


Today, Japan’s Forest Agency has designated 48 official forest therapy trails for shinrin-yoku, and the country hopes to have a total of 100 within 10 years.   


But you don’t have to live in Japan and have a designated shinrin-yoku forest to reap the benefits of better health.  Just make a date with nature. Ditch the electronic devices- yes, even the Garmin and the iPod- and pay attention to her for a few hours if not a whole day.  Drink in the fresh air, listen to the silence.  


The further our days are spent in sedentary caves, the more vital it becomes to reestablish what the cells of our body already know:  Home isn’t at the work place, it’s out there with the moss, the silt, and the cricket’s song -outside, where our minds get lost in the rhythms of a landscape, and our hearts beat in sync with the atoms of a granite slab.


Think about that the next time you stroll down the trail.  And you just might might live to 150.

To read more about the Shinrin Yoku study:



To read more about Attention Restoration Theory:



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