In the 1980s, some people in Japan developed a concept called Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing or forest therapy. The idea is simple — natural areas offer calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to visitors. And yet even in a state as rural and forested as West Virginia, accessing natural areas can be difficult.
In bustling Morgantown, White Park is an oasis, with trails through wooded areas and a reservoir.
“The way they use that concept in Japan is they — in counter to a very stressful modern working society where people are overworked (they have one of the highest depression and suicide rates in the civilized world) — they developed these forest bathing centers that are outside the city,” said Sam Zizzi, a professor of exercise psychology at West Virginia University.
These forest bathing participants aren’t necessarily doing intense physical activity, but rather walking or sitting and meditating — without technology and with awareness.
“Pay attention to sounds, pay attention to the senses, the changes, the smells,” said Zizzi. “And then they were measuring what was happening when they put them back in the urban environment. So how long did the tranquility — how long did the stress relief — last? So they were seeing effects that were lasting weeks and months and changing their cardiovascular profile.”
According to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, pulse rate and blood pressure dropped significantly after subjects participated in a short forest bathing program. But the thing is — you don’t need to go to a specific “center” to experience these benefits.
“Forest bathing in its essence is really being mindful of your environment and exposing yourself to your natural world, but it could really be anywhere,” said Zizzi.
Access to green spaces is usually an urban conversation. But Zizi argues it’s one we need to have in West Virginia as well.
“The easiest choice used to be the best choice for physical and mental health,” he said. “And right now that’s not necessarily the case in our environment. That’s not necessarily only West Virginia either. But the system does make the easy choice sometimes quite difficult.”
Meaning that even though people in rural areas are by default living closer to trees, they also may not have easy access to walkable trails, parks and greenways. If it’s not easy to go outside and walk around, people aren’t going to do it. Professor Christiaan Abildso works with Zizzi and joined us at White Park. Abildso focuses on health policy and says there are active things the state legislature could do to change improve access.
“Honestly, we could dedicate 10 percent of our transportation budget to non-motorized projects,” said Abildso.
Meaning adding walking paths around ballfields so parents can move while their kids are playing sports, connecting existing parks to sidewalks, and expanding roads to include bike lanes so people don’t need to get in a car at all.
“If you think of rural America, industrial America was built on two things: rail and water. Right?” said Abildso. “So now that those things are going away, we have the remaining railbeds to convert to rail trails and we have rivers that if we clean up we could be out paddling if we provide access.— That can be expensive. But if we can provide access, that would be amazing.”
“Those are the type of solutions we have to get,” said Zizzi. “And they’re happening in areas in West Virginia, but they’re one-offs — they’re in that county, but not in the other 54. So they’re starting to happen, but it needs to be — you know obviously, for larger changes, for us to get in the middle even, we would need progressive, amazing policies.”
In the meantime, they said, get outside any way you can. And leave your phone at home. You might just find that a quick nature bath is just the thing you need.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.