Tag Archives: research

Forest bathing

May 24, 2014

Cities can be stressful places. Crowds, traffic, crime, grime, offices, jobs, chairs, factories, chemicals, freeways, too many odiferous White Castle locations — it wears on a body. The industry formed around reducing stress to manageable levels is vast and worth some stressful number of dollars. Fortunately, many of the ways to counteract the stresses of living and living in cities are cheap and abundant. Breathing deeply, walking around, and finding some nature are obvious antidotes.

Finding nature, even in a city known for its wilderness — its pheasants and hawks, coyotes and foxes, fields of tall grass and sprawling mulberry trees — can be tricky. Officially, there’s Belle Isle, of course, and Rouge Park, and, if you’re really desperate, the meager route of the concrete-encased Dequindre Cut Greenway. But the pursuit of the real forest experience, free from the sounds and scents of civilization, encourages some Detroiters to trek outside the city.


What is it about nature that is so deeply relaxing to human physiology? Studies have demonstrated that simply looking at pictures of woodsy scenes calms the brain. Scientists have also been reviving and formally investigating the effects of supposedly traditional practices like forest bathing. Forest bathing! Just the phrase sounds like a balm for our frenetic selves. The Finnish Forest Research Institute is conducting a multi-year study on forests and human wellbeing, and South Korea is investing $140 million in a new National Forest Therapy Center. Japan is the leader in forest medicine, with 48 forest therapy trails as of 2012, and 52 more planned in the coming years. This is a big step beyond, for example, the healing gardens boasted by American hospitals that want to bill themselves as more progressive, holistic, green, and genuinely caring.

The Japanese government coined the term for forest bathing in 1982 — shinrin-yoku, defined as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” Inspired by ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices, it was a nondestructive way to use Japan’s forests, which cover two-thirds of the country, and to soothe a perpetually wired, frenetic society that has the third-highest suicide rate in the developed world. The government funnelled about $4 million into forest-bathing research between 2004 and 2012. Studies had already shown that hanging out in the woods benefits anxiety, depression, creativity, and cognition, but nobody really knew what was happening to the body on a molecular level.

Two scientists have shaped careers around coming up with an answer to this puzzle. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist at Chiba University, might be forest medicine’s biggest proponent. He’s studied the myriad effects of nature on the body, comparing nature walks versus city walks according to various measures of stress — biological markers like cortisol levels, sympathetic nervous system activity, blood pressure, heart rate — and subjective ratings of moods, anxiety, and depression. Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, visited one of Miyazaki’s research stations in 2012, writing compellingly about her experience for Outside Magazine. As Miyazaki told her, “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments. Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.” In short, because humans evolved in nature, it’s where our bodies feel most at ease, even if our minds don’t know it.

Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon University in Tokyo and chairman of the International Society of Forest Medicine, has also made some fascinating advances. Li’s work deals with identifying the individual natural components that make our bodies respond in such favorable ways. Li suspected that, in addition to the sight of nature, the scent of evergreens and other trees had a considerable role in the health benefits of forest bathing. He tested this by leaving subjects in hotel rooms with cypress aromatherapy, finding that their numbers of natural killer cells, which protect against infection and cancer, had similar increases with the simulated indoor “forest” and a visit to the real thing. Anyone up for a walk in the woods with some cypress aromatherapy tied around their neck?


Aims of forest wellness absent, Detroit isn’t without significant arboreal attention. The Greening of Detroit has been reforesting the city for the past 25 years, planting over 81,000 trees. It sponsors plantings all over the city every few weeks, and residents can apply to plant trees in their neighborhoods with the Greening’s assistance. This helps, but it’s not meant to make a forest. Last week, Hantz farms did a massive tree planting over 20 acres on the east side, the beginnings of what will be Detroit’s first forest in a while.

Volunteers spent Saturday morning plugging 15,000 trees into pre-dug holes at a cost of about $20,000, an amount Hantz Farms expects it will take a long time, if ever, before the tree farm breaks even. The new saplings are white birch, bur and swamp white oaks, flowering dogwoods, and sugar maples. No cypress, no firs or pines, Hantz Farms? Too bad. There are plans to tap the maples for syrup when they come to a riper age. As part of their hopelessly controversial deal in purchasing the land from the city, they’re forbidden to sell anything, making the more traditional agriculture they had in mind unfeasible. Instead, the trees will beautify and be a showpiece for what is possible with a large-scale urban farm. Nice, huh? For now, there’s not a lot to look at. A video drone captured a disorienting view of the neat rows of holes in the ground.

How open to the public will the new woodlands be? Can visitors freely wander through the rows and admire the trees? Hantz Farms hopes that the soon-to-be majestic stands of white birches and flowering dogwoods will attract visitors to the neighborhood, “a place of beauty in the lower east side that people can go out of their way to see in the spring,” as president Mike Score said in a radio interview. Hopefully this will be more meaningful than just a slow drive through the streets, a parade of idling vehicles offsetting the good atmosphere generated by the trees. Hantz Farms has been glowing with praise from the immediate community, about 200 of whom were believed to have attended the tree planting. According to surveys, 94% of neighbors supported the project. That’s much better than recent outcries over the Greening of Detroit’s dendroremediation projects, where frustrated residents voiced fears of air pollution as contaminated soil was unearthed. As John Hantz told the Free Press on Saturday, “It’s really a community deal happening today,” he said. “How many more people are out walking now? This will be the first summer they can walk to church instead of drive because they feel safe.” Let’s hope this is what happens!

Paradoxically, other dreams for significant reforestation in Detroit have been regarded with little but skepticism. Encouraging the growth of a dense forest was suspected to result in more places for criminals, rapists, drug users, and other objectionable types to hang out. If open spaces deter crime, some of the homes adjacent to Hantz Farms’ woodland might be in trouble, situated immediately next to the new trees. Will the trees be equipped with security cameras? It’s a strange deal to live in a city that turns increasingly wild as the years ebb — the quiet woods a tradeoff for the peace of mind in living within easy sight of each other that urban neighbors expect. Whatever the eventual social outcome, at least, according to data from researchers like Miyazaki, Li, and others, it might do wonders for residents’ blood pressure.


January 15, 2014

It’s hard to believe it’s the ides of January already, well past the holiday season judging by the number of evergreens thrown to the curb.


Around the holidays, still in the thick of celebrations, the radio was already abuzz with ardent talk of resolutions for the new year. Shows about lush holiday entertaining were broadcast adjacent to those on which guests were interrogated about how they might resolve to become their better selves in a few days. As usual, a notable majority talked about being healthier. Women polled about their resolutions were more concerned with losing weight, while getting fit was how men envisioned their new year goal.

Since then, the media situation has not improved. Articles with instructions on sticking to these sometimes unrealistic expectations have proliferated, along with supporting materials. New York Times writer Jane Brody calls this the “Empty Diet Claim Season,” and reports being overwhelmed by 25 pounds of new cookbooks arriving at the office. Targeted to aid weight loss and wellbeing, titles such as Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat and Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much offer myriad ways to accomplish these aims.

Advice that can be easily assimilated from the comfort of a favorite couch or armchair means well, but the consensus is that neither diet nor exercise alone will cut it. Walking is an easy resolution target, too often seen as a compelling way to court fitness without breaking too great a sweat. While it might help maintain some level of fitness, walking isn’t going to get you in shape on its own, at least at the poky pace most of us move.

Some people vow to walk more; others to walk faster in response to recent research analyzing data from the National Walkers’ Health Study. Using data collected from almost 39,000 walkers, albeit a disproportionately female sample, researchers divided the walkers into four categories based on their typical speed as measured by a six-minute walk test. All four categories boasted suspiciously high speeds — the fastest group walking a mile in under 13.5 minutes and the slowest dawdling at almost 17 or more minutes per mile, which is still an above-average 3.57 mph.

In the slowest group, however, many walkers needed 20 minutes to finish their mile, the number of minutes by which Google times directions, and some took as many as 24 minutes. Comparing walking data with death records more than a decade after the study took place, the researchers discovered something not wholly surprising — the walkers in the fourth group were 18% more likely to have died, especially from heart disease or dementia.

The unexpected news from the study was that the death rate was still high for the slowest walkers even when adjusted for duration of their walk. Taking a longer walk, thereby expending as much total energy as a person walking “vigorously” for a half hour daily, did nothing to help the participants’ risk of dying. The very slowest walkers were actually 44 percent more likely to have died than others in the study, despite duration of walking or other exercise.

Who can tell, though, the researchers concluded, which problem came first — a lethargic walking speed or an underlying health condition, or whether the capacity for high intensity exercise is a characteristic independent of habitual physical activity. And although results were adjusted for other risk factors such as smoking, it’s worth noting that the fastest walkers also ate a lot more fruit, a lot less meat, and imbibed a shockingly higher quantity of alcohol than the slowest walkers.

All in all, whether such a study comes off as sound science or ableist propaganda, we’re still in favor of walks, long walks, and honoring the comfortable human pace at which we evolved to move. As avid New York walker Maggie Nesciur said, “I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed,” her steady voice revealing a deep sense of integrity. It would be ideal if this pace happened to be the ultra-healthy 4.45 mph of the fastest walkers in the study, but as long as you can finish crossing the street without getting hit by a surge of traffic, it’s probably fine.

If not, one of the best parts of resolutions is how easily they can be changed, unlike the habits they are often meant to modify. Since many resolution-makers are already entirely off track by now, just two weeks into the new year, it’s about time to make some new resolutions anyway.

Studying walking yields pedestrian advice:

December 19, 2012

Don’t study while you walk. Or do much of anything else. Just walk.

Drivers have been encouraged to keep “thumbs on the wheel, not on the text” since Michigan enacted a ban on texting and emailing while driving. But what about cyclists and pedestrians?

In a study published last week, researchers from the University of Washington took to the streets to qualify distractions and quantify seconds it took to cross 20 risky Seattle intersections. Almost one-third of pedestrians were inattentive while maneuvering. Among the 1102 people studied, the most popular ambulatory activity was listening to music, which accounted for 11.2% of distracted pedestrians. The distracted pedestrians were also seen text messaging (7.3%) and making phone calls (6.2%).

Technological diversions correlated with speed and safety in clearing intersections unscathed. Worst off were the texters, who took an additional 1.87 seconds to navigate the intersection compared to attentive pedestrians — almost 20% longer. They were also nearly four times more likely to “display at least 1 unsafe crossing behaviour (disobeying the lights, crossing mid-intersection, or failing to look both ways)”. People listening to music walked faster through intersections compared to both phone users and undistracted pedestrians.

Smithsonian’s Smart News blog covers a few past studies on distracted pedestrians injuring themselves.

It’s not all grim tidings for walkers — on the other hand, researchers found that walking without the phone may counteract the frazzling of nerves that technological devices can promote. In a recent study by researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas, unplugging and taking a walk in nature increased performance on a creative problem-solving exercise by an incredible 50%.

Previous studies have established that demanding cognitive functions, including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are crucial to getting by in our media-saturated surroundings, and that the systems responsible for these functions can easily become overtaxed. Exposure to nature can restore functioning in these areas. Through this study, researchers have been able to add improved creative performance to the list of benefits realized by spending some time outside. Whether that is due to the walking, the nature, or to another variable is yet uncertain, but surely the message is clear enough.

Walking, “an untapped reservoir of opportunity”

December 4, 2012

Detroit Area Rambling Network hopes that you enjoyed a very merry Noel Night this past weekend! The record balmy temperatures may not have been as festive as we’d like, but threw no slushy obstacles in our path. We’re looking forward already to next year’s celebration of commerce, culture, and favorite Midtown establishments. Isn’t it satisfying to tick off items from your holiday shopping list on foot?

While it’s undeniably genial when an evening sets itself up for us to stroll in it, there is a clear need for more of these occasions — ones that you can make yourself, every day. This is especially crucial in the glare of recent studies on active transportation, that is to say, commuting on foot or bike. Previous studies have focused on Americans’ dearth of recreational meandering or workout jaunts, leaving this unfortunate statistic unobserved. Less than 25% of Americans spend more than ten consecutive minutes in active transportation as part of their weekly commute, according to research by the Yale School of Public Health. Furie and Desai, the lead researchers, went so far as to suggest that active transportation is “an untapped reservoir of opportunity for physical activity for many U.S. adults.”

This new figure is perhaps predictable, since the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of active transportation worldwide, says James Sallis, of the University of California San Diego’s behavioral medicine division. He cautions that our transportation preferences have been sculpted over decades by transit and land use policies, and this is turning out to be more detrimental than anticipated.

“Not surprisingly, the findings highlight that transportation policies that essentially ignore walking and cycling appear to be contributing to the major chronic diseases that account for 80 percent of healthcare costs.

These new findings point out how transportation policy is health policy.”

The news outside of these borders is equally grim, reporting that people are walking 80 miles fewer per year in Britain.

“Whereas in the late 1990s we each clocked up about 250 miles of walking journeys, by 2008 that had dropped to 170.

Look further back and the picture is even more startling: since 1975 the proportion of journeys taken by foot has halved, from 44 to 22 per cent. Now, a fifth of all car journeys cover a mile or less.”

Isn’t it absurd to think we’re somehow justified in regarding walking as “an untapped reservoir of physical activity,” and that “active living” should be a pioneering field of study? How paradoxical, to sit at a desk researching how insufficiently people move, and how to entice them to move more in the future. The Detroit Area Rambling Network is so excited for this future that it can’t sit still. We just can’t wait, so we’re going out for a walk. See you there!