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              Green Exercise


by Betty Dietrich

What would you rather do?  Go for a walk in the woods or stroll down a city street?  Which do you think would be better for your health?

Since exercise and good health go hand in hand, it would seem that exercise in general, regardless of the setting, would be equally beneficial.

Yet research, concentrating on the benefits of exercise in a natural environment, has had surprising results.

Studies have shown that “Green Exercise” can affect both your body and mind, resulting in reduced stress, lower blood sugar, better concentration, and improved immunity.

Much of the research has been conducted in Japan.

In 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan introduced the concept of Shinrin Yoko –  “forest bathing”.  The idea was to encourage people to take walks in the woods.  It was believed that forest bathing would help relieve stress and promote a healthy lifestyle.  Forest bathing is now an accepted stress management activity in Japan.

Shinrin yoko – Forest bathing

The success of forest bathing led to the establishment of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine in 2007.  Dr. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, is the president of the society.  His experiments, testing the effects of forest bathing on mood, stress, and the immune system have garnered international attention.

A study published in January of 2011, compared 280 healthy people.  They were divided into 2 groups.  One group of people were instructed to walk through a forest for a few hours while the second group of people walked through a city area for the same length of time.  The next day they traded places.

These tests were conducted over several days.  Scientists found that those who walked through the woods had “lower concentrations of cortical, lower pulse rates, and lower blood pressure”.

Other studies of a similar nature revealed that participants walking in the forest had a significant decrease in their level of stress hormones.  They had a significant increase in anti-cancer proteins and NK (natural killer) cell activity.

NK is a component of the immune system which fights cancer.  The increase in NK activity continued 30 days after the experiment.

According to Dr. Li, phytoncide (wood essential oils) found in forests, are partly responsible for the increase in NK activity.  These are airborne chemicals emitted from trees which protect them from rotting and insects.  Evidence suggests they protect humans, as well.

Research on the benefits of green exercise has also been conducted in other nations.  A leader in this research is Dr. Jules Pretty from the University of Essex in the UK.

His research team did 10 studies involving 1252 participants of green exercise.  Findings demonstrated large benefits in mood, stress and anxiety.  (Barton & Pretty, 2010)

They compared the effectiveness of exercise for mental well-being in those who did a green outdoor walk with those who did an indoor shopping mall walk.

“Improvements in self-esteem and mood were significantly greater following the green outdoor walk, especially for feelings of anger, depression and tension”.

The results were:

92% – less depressed
86% – less tense
81% – less angry
80% – less fatigued
79% – less confused
56% – more vigorous

In total, with green exercise, 88% experienced an overall improvement in mood and 90% reported higher levels of self-esteem contrasted with those who did indoor exercise.

It is interesting to note that green spaces with water nearby, such as lakes, rivers and coastal areas, had an even greater effect.

In Japan, forests occupy 67% of the land.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, 83% of the Puget Sound is forested.  We live in an environment surrounded by trees and water.  Even those who live in urban areas, have access to wooded parks.

Point Defiance Park      (Russ Carmack photo)

The findings of this research indicate how restorative exercising in nature can be, to both one’s mental and physical well-being.

The message is clear:  when you go out for your daily run or walk…head for the woods.

Jerry tackles a hill in Gig Harbor’s Grandview Forest


Editor’s note:  This article was originally published in the Silver Strider magazine, March-April 2012, print edition.  Though some of the statistics are dated, it is relevant to our current coronavirus situation.    A run or walk in the forest is a great way to de-stress!