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There is, however, a growing body of scientific evidence that indicates that a mindful walk in a woodland, under the canopy of the trees, provides a wide range of physiological and mental health benefits, including reduced anxiety and improved cardiovascular health.
“This is due in part to the chemicals or phytoncides in the air which are emitted by the trees,” says Philippa Bassett, referring to the antimicrobial, volatile organic compounds derived from plants and trees. Japanese scientific studies have shown that certain trees produce phytoncides that are beneficial for human health because they attack virus-infected cells and in turn boost the immune system and its natural killer (NK) cells in the body.
“If you think of tree oils like Siberian Fir, eucalyptus and tea tree oil, trees secrete these chemicals, which then release the phytoncides, that are used for healing. They also help us in lowering our stress levels and anxiety. I know from my own experience that sport and competitions can be stressful. Forest bathing, aside from the physiological benefits, would allow athletes to take time out and just be and not have to worry about results and performance. It would allow them to have a mental break.”
Bassett is the PR & Communications Manager at the Forest Bathing Institute [TFBI], who have set out to advance the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku [‘forest bathing’] across the UK. They have a number of sites across England, as well as a new initiative at Kew Gardens in London that is being embraced by members and non-members alike. TFBI is also offering training in Monmouthshire in Wales during the summer and is working with major landowners across the UK so there is access to a number of different locations for forest bathing, which includes land owned by Forestry England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB], the Woodland Trust, Surrey Wildlife Trust, and the National Trust.
For all this progress, the UK has some way to catch up with Japan, where, in the early 1980s, Shinrin-yoku was devised as a preventative therapeutic healthcare intervention for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, mental health issues and physical complaints such as high blood pressure.
Bassett adds: “Our goal is to replicate the scientific evidence, which the Japanese government initiated in the early 1980s. Over the last 20 years, Professor Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School has been conducting further research into the physiological health benefits of Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest medicine’ as he terms it. He is the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine and TBFI has been delighted to welcome him as its scientific advisor.”
Led by its Co-Founders Gary Evans and Olga Terebenina, TFBI devised the Forest Bathing+ programme, which takes the principles of Shinrin-yoku and leads participants through a series of structured sensory exercises that engage the senses with the primary aim of facilitating a mindful state under the forest canopy.
“People come on a Forest Bathing nature therapy session with various mindsets, not really knowing what it entails. I think the fact that they are willing to try something new is great,” says Bassett, who is also a Forest Bathing+ guide.
The Leaders Performance Institute spoke to Bassett with a view to better understanding how the benefits of forest bathing may be leveraged in the world of sport.
Understanding Forest Bathing+
In 2019, TFBI partnered with Dr Kirsten McEwan, a senior lead researcher from the University of Derby, to conduct the first UK scientific research study into the physiological benefits of Forest Bathing+. The study revealed that after a two-hour session, 88 percent of participants reported an average 29 percent reduction in anxiety, while 57 percent of participants showed an increase in heartrate variability [HRV].
“HRV is used as a metric in sport to ensure athletes haven’t over-trained,” says Bassett. “Research has identified that athletes benefit from taking a break from intense cardio exercise, and perhaps doing a more relaxing activity, such as forest bathing, which could be seen as a more complementary way for the body to recuperate ahead of their next training session, because they are able to engage each of the senses and achieve a more mindful state of being, which is healing for the body”
TFBI recommends that a person spend two or three hours in an ancient forest or woodland every two to three weeks. “This keeps your immune system topped up and enables you to maintain that state of harmony and to be more relaxed.”
The relaxation aspects of forest bathing cause the Leaders Performance Institute to recall the words of Zach Brandon, the Mental Skills Coordinator at Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks, whom we spoke to in 2019.
“Your mind can become your best friend or your worst enemy very quickly in this game,” he said, echoing mental performance coaches across the globe and explaining why mindfulness practice was gaining traction across the major leagues. “Our thoughts can have a lot of power but we shouldn’t view our thoughts as law. We don’t have to believe everything that we think and we don’t always have to get caught up in judging the thoughts that we have. A huge part of mindfulness is present moment awareness but it is also about seeing things through a non-judgmental lens.”
The forest environment readily encourages this goal. Bassett says: “Our sense of smell is closely linked with memory and emotions, so often participants are reminded of their childhood playing in the woods, and in nature.” Participants may also hear a plane, motorbike or car in the background but let it pass without judgment.
Forest Bathing+ enables individuals to move into their more restful and therapeutic autonomic nervous system via a series of structured sensory exercises that take place during the nature therapy session.
From the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system
During the pandemic, Britons have increasingly taken to walking, cycling or jogging. “People became more attuned to their natural surroundings because they were not able to go anywhere else such as the gym,” says Bassett. Social distancing has long been a feature of forest bathing, too. “We normally keep some space between each participant anyway to ensure that everyone is able to just focus on their time in nature and take time out for themselves. That’s why there is no talking, there’s no phones, no taking photographs to assist in just being present in the moment.
She adds: “The exercises are about engaging with the senses so that participants can switch into a more mindful state. You’re focusing on one sense and, if you’re talking, you’re listening to the conversation and you’re not really focusing on that sensory exercise, which might be listening and tuning into the tree canopy, the birdsong, or noticing textures, colours and patterns.”
Of course, some assume that ‘forest bathing’ involves some kind of immersion in water, but, as Bassett explains, though sunny strolls may be preferable, rainy days are not necessarily a bad thing, given how phytoncides can be set free from the forest floor during a downpour.
Come rain or shine, sessions will begin in the same fashion. “The guide will meet the group, normally in the car park, do some housekeeping providing guidelines about the session, being in the forest, health and safety and general points such as maintaining some space between each other and not using phones and general chit chat once the session starts.
“We’ll complete a risk assessment before the event starts. Normally the guide will arrive about an hour beforehand. We check the route, noting the weather, for instance if it’s cold or there’s rain forecast, finding somewhere more sheltered would be useful to ensure the comfort of the participants. We also check the ground underfoot, noting any hazards, is it tick season, and checking areas for high levels of bracken that may not be suitable for the session. There are a number of factors that are considered ahead of any forest bathing session as safety is paramount.
“Then you lead them through the planned route. We’re not talking about charging through the forest; you might only walk a half a mile or so, if that, throughout the session. It’s about slowing down, walking at a much slower pace than normal. Often I think people are surprised at how slow it is, but it enables them to start to be able to slow down and switch to a more present state and ultimately switch into their parasympathetic nervous system. Often people don’t spend time noticing the natural environment or even a forest in this way; many feel regenerated at the end of it, and more connected to nature.”
The ‘sharing circle’ based on native American Indian custom is integral to all Forest Bathing+ sessions. “It’s an opportunity for attendees to share their experiences at the end of an exercise in a confidential environment. People tend to not know each other and you don’t have to say anything, but frequently people say that they had noticed how bright the moss at the base of a tree was, how clear the birdsong is in the forest, the difference in lighting, how smelling the forest litter and earth reminded them of their childhood; it could be any amount of emotions and memories that come up. People can open up about anything.”
By that point, it is hoped that attendees will have transitioned from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. “That is the rest and digest, recuperative side of the body. It’s where you have higher cognisance, rationality and reasoning rather than that high cortisol, adrenaline-fuelled sympathetic nervous system. Mindfulness assists in moving to the parasympathetic and improving HRV.”
Finally, Bassett indicates that TFBI is ready to welcome athletes and sports teams. “It would certainly be good to run a pilot session for any sports person and sports teams who believe that spending time under the forest canopy savouring the uniqueness of nature could be of benefit to them on many different levels. We can organise a taster session at one of our beautiful sites across the country, one of our university partners could even attend to take some physiological measurements.”
Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.