Prescribe a walk in the woods to treat stress, doctors urged

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The Japanese practice of taking contemplative walks in woodland, which has won favour with the Duchess of Cambridge, should be prescribed by the NHS to combat stress, conservationists have said.

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, was devised 40 years ago as part of a Japanese government initiative to improve the wellbeing of stressed salarymen. It requires walkers to breathe deeply and open their senses to the environment. An estimated five million Japanese take part, spending time in the dappled sunshine, birdsong and woodland smells to revive body and spirit.

The Duchess of Cambridge is said to have been inspired by forest bathing when she co-designed a garden at Chelsea Flower Show this year.

Now the Woodland Trust has urged family doctors to prescribe it for conditions such as anxiety and depression. Stuart Dainton, the trust’s head of innovation, said that shinrin-yoku was “a route to helping the nation de-stress”. The charity is planning a series of forest bathing events, which could include touching trees and listening to wildlife.

Forestry England, the country’s largest custodian of land, has also endorsed the practice. “The simple method of being calm and quiet among the trees, observing nature while breathing deeply can help adults and children to de-stress and boost health and wellbeing in a natural way,” it said.

A study by King’s College London last year found that being among trees and hearing birdsong improved mental wellbeing, and the effect lasted for hours. Other studies suggest that a forest environment can lower blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol.

Jo Barton, a “green exercise” expert at the University of Essex, found that green spaces made people talk to each other more. “When you’re outdoors, you talk for 20% more of the time,” she said.

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