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Health baths: why you need to get out in the countryside


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El Correo, El Diario Vasco, ABC, Canarias 7, El Comercio, El Diario Montañés, La Voz Digital, Hoy, Ideal, La Verdad, Las Provincias, La Rioja, El Norte de Castilla

Ana Villarroya

Researcher at Biodiversity and Environment Institute and professor at School of Sciences of the University of Navarra.

Whether we know much or little about them, there is one thing that everyone who has ever walked in a forest will agree on: that time, long or short, changes something in me. Those who walk in natural environments often describe that this activity makes them feel better, less stressed and more peaceful. This is no coincidence; we know that contact direct contact with nature has physical (Twohig-Bennett & Jones 2018) and psychological (Kotera et al. 2020) health benefits. The opposite phenomenon is also proven in the scientific literature: a predominantly urban lifestyle away from nature increases the risk of ailments such as obesity, diabetes and depression (Hidaka 2012). In fact, these non-communicable diseases are currently among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity globally (World Health Organization 2018) and nationally (Ministry of Health 2020). These data become particularly important considering that the urban population now accounts for more than 50% of the world's population, and this proportion is expected to continue to grow (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division 2019). In this context, the European Union's public policies on subject health promote envisage healthier lifestyles, inviting people to change their attitudes and behaviours (European Parliament and European Commission 2014).

The logic is clear: if certain habits lead to poorer health, they must be changed. But logic alone is not enough: who hasn't broken healthy and laudable New Year's resolutions? Who hasn't abandoned a gym membership or a per diem expenses that they were initially eager to adopt? The very pace of life in our society, with its rush and overload of tasks, does not make it easy for us to adopt healthier habits. However, in this same unflattering panorama, a new proposal from the East is making itself known. In recent years, the so-called "forest baths", the Spanish translation of the Japanese word shinrin-yoku, have become popular in several European countries. This activity, originally from Japan, is defined as "the internship of walking slowly through the forest" (Miyazaki 2018). Although it was born as a way to promote Japanese forests, scientists developed programs of study to understand why and how forests are beneficial to human health. Today, Japan's health system includes forest bathing as a medically prescribed therapy, and there are more than sixty forest therapy centres in the country (Miyazaki 2018).

What differentiates the forest baths from other proposals? I would sum it up in two interconnected elements: environment and rhythm. This activity can only take place in a natural environment, so it brings with it the aforementioned benefits. While the ideal is to be able to access wild places, we should not forget the potential of urban green spaces, whose positive effects range from mental health (Guan et al 2017) to academic performance (Kuo et al 2018). The second differentiating element of forest bathing is the pace at which it takes place. Typically, forest bathing does not involve walking long distances (about 2-3 kilometres in an hour and average), nor does it involve walking over steep slopes. It is a matter of walking slowly, without physical effort, in order to focus all our attention on what our senses perceive. The forest bathing guides have the role of setting this leisurely pace, and intersperse activities that encourage the use of the five senses to connect with the environment, and which participants are invited, but never obliged, to join in. In this sense, it is an activity that is aligned with others such as mindfulness or contemplation. There is no competition or records to beat, not even one's own. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with oneself and with nature, which improves our wellbeing and renews us for our daily lives. And in the midst of all this, perhaps the opportunity to discover that "something" that really changes me, that gives me the impulse to improve from within and not as an external imposition. A bird's song, the drops that adorn a spider's web, the touch of moss, the smell of wet earth... Nature speaks many languages, which say something to those who stop to listen. This stopping sounds utopian to us, impossible with the pace we are going at, counter-cultural. But it is not; those who have tried it know it, and repeat it.