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February 21, 2018

Health but not as NHS knows it

Slowly but surely, and very slowly in some parts, the NHS is starting to notice the untapped resource that sits right on its doorstep – the community. Faced with ever-growing pressure on its budgets, the perennial challenge is to find the time and space to step away from the immediate challenges and to seek the preventative, more holistic approach to improving health outcomes. Social prescribing is becoming much more mainstream but it will take imagination and help from our sector to make this work. Forest bathing, for instance, could become a regular offering from our community woodlands.


Karin Goodwin The Herald

THE TREES whisper in the wind as sunshine filters through the branches, dappling the forest floor. A robin flutters, a nearby stream burbles while you sit back and contemplate your surroundings. This is forest bathing, or Shinrin Yoku, a Japanese “green prescription” with proven benefits to both physical and mental health, now making waves – or at least rustling leaves – in a woodland near you.

Experts claim Shinrin Yoku – a term which translates literally as forest bathing – is about recalibrating our sense of wellbeing by tapping into our innate connection with nature, all too often missing in our time-pressured 21st century lives.

The “immersive experience” involves slow and relaxed walking in the forest, meditation and honing in on sights, smells, sounds and tastes in the restorative woodland environment.

Introduced by the Japanese government on prescription in the eighties to deal with an epidemic of stress and anxiety, studies have shown it lowers blood pressure, pulse rate, levels of stress hormone cortisol and heart rate. The findings are backed by a growing body of research that shows green exercise improves physical, emotional and mental health. Moves to promote “nature prescriptions” – from walking groups to outdoor meditation – have been growing in recent years.

Caitlin Keddie, founder of Forest Therapy Scotland, believes she is currently the country’s only practitioner offering group-based Shinrin Yoku, after completing a course offered by the American Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs last year.

Keddie, a former manager of herbalist Napiers Glasgow, has so far held most of her forest bathing events in accessible woodlands in the central belt, though others have been held across Scotland from Aberfeldy to Inverness-shire. She is hosting an afternoon event in Glasgow’s Pollok Park today.

She said: “The Japanese Government started promoting it in the eighties but of course lots of cultures have been doing it for a very long time. It’s part of our own culture, going way back when you look at the Celts and the Picts and the connection they had with nature. It’s both new [here] and not new at all.”

The events, which are between 90 minutes to three hours long, include a slow paced immersive walk – no rushing allowed – and a guided meditation to help ensure people are more responsive to their surroundings.

“Then there is the forest bathing itself, when you find a place to sit for 20 minutes or so and soak it all up,” she said. “At the end we do a Japanese-style tea ceremony, with a foraged herbal tea that I’ll collect on the walk and there is a chance to share our experiences – anything goes. We’ve seen all sorts of people – elderly and kids, people with mobility issues or those who regularly walk their dogs but do so while on their phones and keeping to the paths. The other week we went out in the snow and we saw deer, and a little robin hung out with us. It can be a real eye-opener.”

Julie Procter, director of charity Greenspace Scotland, said it was time to take the benefits of time spent in nature seriously in order to reap the health benefits. In 2016 a survey suggested that three-quarters of British children spent less than an hour outside playing each day.

“In our time-pressured world people don’t always make time to get out and explore nature,” she said. “People can feel silly doing this sort of thing on their own, so it can be nice to do it as part of a group.”

She claimed that fear of the woods could also be a factor, with cautionary fairy tales from Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel a part of our “national narrative”.

“It’s time to change that,” she said. “What we find is that if we spend time in the woods our children we are more likely to do so as adults. If getting some support to feel safe and confident helps that has to be a good thing.”

Kevin Lafferty, health and recreation advisor for the Forestry Commission Scotland, claimed much of the organisation’s focus was on creating a space where people could find sanctuary and recover from “mental fatigue”.

He said: “Hard science shows that there’s a clear, physical, social and mental health benefit. There is a lot of work to show that humans need to have regular contact with the natural environment. It’s a need that has developed over millennia. It’s not woolly tree-hugger stuff. It can really effect mood and counter the rise of stress and anxiety.”

Peter Rawcliffe, People and Places Manager for Scottish Natural Heritage, said that doctors were increasingly recommending a “dose of nature” as part of a preventative approach to health.

“The Japanese experience suggests that forest bathing helps more people to enjoy the health benefits of being outdoors, which is something we’re keen to see more of in Scotland,” he added.

A dose of the green stuff

Organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission Scotland are increasingly working with the NHS to encourage doctors to prescribe time in nature as part of a healthy life style. “Prescriptions” include:

1. Time in the woods: “Branching-out” groups are available on referral and run in forests around Scotland offering meditation, bushcraft, tai chi and conservation tasks for those with mental health issues.

2. Taking a walk: GPs are referring patients to walking groups and encouraging them to pace the local parks.

3. Therapeutic gardening: research shows helping things grow as part of a group can reduce depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress.

4. Green gym sessions: provides conservation volunteering opportunities with a focus on physical health and wellbeing.

How to “forest bathe”:

1. Find a place in nature that you love to be. Stop for a while and if you feel comfortable, close your eyes.

2. Focus on your breathing and take in your surroundings with your different senses, taking your attention from smell, to touch, to taste, to sound.

3. Finally open your eyes and look around you.

4. Walk slowly through the woodland, allowing yourself time to stop and look closely at everything from trees to lichens, birds and insects.

5. Find a “sitspot” – a wild place you can visit regularly for at least 20 mins each time, returning throughout the seasons.