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Walk in the woods offers path to improved health

Walk in the woods offers path to improved health

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Instead of staying indoors in the winter months dreaming of warmer days outside in the garden, take advantage of taking a walk through the forest. There are so many things to see that are hidden during the warmer months. In addition, there is no worry of mosquito and tick bites, or coming upon a snake. Walking is a popular, non-strenuous form of physical exercise without the cost of a gym membership. All you need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes, layered clothing, and water. In fact, recent research shows that a walk in the forest can also support better health through stress reduction and improved immune response.

In the 1980s, Shinrin Yoku, or “Forest Bathing,” was developed by the Forest Agency of Japan to aid in preventive healthcare issues. This Japanese term means, “taking in, in all of our senses, the forest atmosphere.” Forest bathing studies demonstrated that just being in the forest under a canopy of trees relieved stress, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and sleep habits, and increased energy levels.

How does this happen, you might ask? Plants have a way to protect themselves by releasing certain chemicals called phytoncides that defend against fungi and insects. Phyton means “plant” in Latin and “cide” means to exterminate. The practice of forest bathing involves walking in a forest and practicing deep, calm breathing. As trees emit the essential oils called phytoncides, the person forest bathing breathes them in. Phytoncides were first discovered in 1928 by Russian scientist B.P. Tokin. Other researchers have called phytoncides, “air vitamins,” stating that forest ecosystems have the ability to create a hygienic atmosphere through the ionization of the surrounding air.

A forest bathing research paper completed in 2020 by the Virginia Cooperative Extension (available by typing ‘forest bathing’ into the search box at states that a forest area of 2.5 acres has the ability to release approximately 6.6 pounds of antimicrobial phytoncides into the air in one day, resulting in a nearly sterile environment (200-300 bacterial cells per cubic meter) within the forest ecosystem. Given the recent stress of the Covid – 19 pandemic and the related concerns about hygienic environments, forest bathing seems as relevant now as in the 1980s.

Interested in trying it? The objective of forest bathing is to give one the opportunity to take it slow while walking and appreciate those things around you that can be seen, heard, touched, and smelled. No cell phones or music are allowed. A state park, community park, or even your wooded backyard is a good place to start.

Before you begin your journey, clear your mind of all those thoughts of what you need to do and leave those worries at home. This may take a little practice, but gets easier over time. If you feel those thoughts persisting, try to think about something around you and how that beautiful piece of nature is nurturing you. Let all your senses take it in. Plan to spend between 20-40 minutes focusing on the nature all around you.

As you step into the forest, breathe deeply and notice the sound of the gravel path that crunches under your footstep. Think about how the crumbling leaves disintegrate under your steps and eventually will turn into compost, nourishing the forest floor. Notice the variation in tree barks - the smooth silvery color of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) tree or the difference in bark texture between a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and a White Oak (Quercus alba) tree. Be amazed in the straightness and immense size of an American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) tree.

Trees are not the only living things you may encounter. Birds are hungry and are darting in and out of the trees looking for their next meal. You may hear their sweet sounds as they communicate with one another. Perhaps you may come across a brook or a creek to experience the soothing and peaceful sounds of water. These are all sights and sounds that are refreshing to the soul that take you away, if just for a little while, from the daily challenges we’ve put upon ourselves.

Nancy Stephenson is a certified Master Gardener through the Virginia Cooperative Extension and a member of the Goochland Powhatan Master Gardener Association (GPMGA). If you are interested in learning more about GPMGA programs or how to become a master gardener volunteer please visit


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