Every Monday morning, my 3-year-old daughter Grace and I head to the North Park Village Nature Center on Chicago's northwest side to take a walk.
We started these weekly trips last April. We kept them up through the hottest days of summer, when the cicadas buzzed and the air felt like soup. We walk if it rains, and we'll walk in the snow. We've seen a mother goose build her nest and hatch her goslings. We've watched, week to week, as tadpoles sprouted their frog legs. Grace throws twigs into the lily pond and I point out herons and deer, yellow finches and woodpeckers, goldenrod and wild roses.
I started making these trips because I was tired of watching "Sleeping Beauty" for the 123rd time on my morning off and wanted some fresh air. But I've recently learned that we're getting more than a break from TV. In Japan, visiting forests for their therapeutic effect is a popular activity known as "Shinrin-yoku" or "forest bathing."
Japanese studies confirm that visiting parks and forests raises levels of white blood cells while lowering pulse rate, blood pressure and concentrations of cortisol, a stress hormone. One 2007 study through the Nippon Medical School in Toyko found that subjects who walked in the forest had higher levels of "natural killer" cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer.
Stress reduction is one factor. Another factor may be inhaling air containing phytoncides, chemicals emitted by plants that protect them from rotting and insects and also appear to help humans.
"It speaks to how stressful our society is and how stressful our human existence has become," says Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, an associate professor of family medicine at Loyola University Hospital Stritch School of Medicine. "When we get to nature, our health improves."
Japanese research also has found that hostility and depression decrease after trips to the forest, and the sense of "liveliness" goes up, according to Dr. Judy Fulop, naturopathic practitioner for the Northwestern Memorial Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness. The higher the stress level of the person going into the forest, the greater the healing effect, Fulop says.
She says a walk in the woods at least once a week is a good goal-the Nippon research found that even seven days later, natural killer cell levels stayed high.
"I experience the difference when I don't do it," says Fulop, who takes her dog on forest walks. "When I don't do it, I feel more lethargic and more tired."
Michelfelder says that forest bathing is particularly good for families with children, to give them time to both reduce stress and to be together.
"Kids build up all this tension and energy from just sitting there all day long," says Michelfelder.
He says parents in his family medicine practice are often upset because by the time they get home from work and want to spend time with their kids, the kids are bouncing off the walls and can't focus. Getting out in nature as a family improves kids' focus and attention "because they'll have a natural outlet for their energy," Michelfelder says.
It also helps, Michelfelder says, for children to touch real things, like trees and mud and water, rather than living perpetually in the virtual environments of computers and television.
"I think kids are overstimulated visually and electromagnetically and understimulated with their other senses," Michelfelder says. "I worry about the sense of smell, the sense of touch, the sense of knowing where your body is at all times."
How can overstressed parents find time to go to the local forest preserve, or even a park? Fulop points out that people who are busy especially need nature breaks and need to find the time. "I think it's much easier to do the tasks I want to do when I come back from a refreshing walk," says Fulop. "Actually taking a break brings you back to freshness, so you can think better."
It's also educational. Walking in the forest gives parents a chance to talk to their children about change and how it can be good, Fulop says.
A walk in the forest also is a great way to show how complicated the world is. I see this in my walks with Grace. In her picture book, there is only one kind of spider-smiling, with curly eyelashes and a fat, black body. But in the forest, she can see dozens of varieties-fuzzy Jumping Spiders; daddy-longlegs scuttling over fallen branches; and yellow-spotted garden spiders on webs sparkling with dew.
Even the act of dropping a pebble in water is complex, because you don't see just one set of ripples, as you would in a computer simulation or a book. Dropping a stone causes droplets of water to splash all around, creating many sets of ripples, spreading into each other. It's a good image for a child to keep in mind-maybe it will help her remember that a single action can have more than one effect.
Michelfelder says there's no reason to stop forest visits now that winter's here.
"There's nothing more peaceful than the Morton Arboretum when there's snow on the ground," Michelfelder says. The last time he was there, he saw two coyotes, which in the summer might have been hidden by foliage or scared away by summer crowds. "There's something all four seasons have to offer outside," says Michelfelder.
So Grace and I will keep taking our forest baths, even in January, even if we have to cut our walk to just 15 minutes, when the weather's too cold. We wouldn't want to miss a coyote. We need to see how a heavy fall of snow will cover the cattails and the prairie grasses, not as we imagine it might be or how an artist paints it in a book, but the way it truly is.