Why We Need to Go Outside Every Day If We Have MS
Last updated: June 2018
I recently ran across a discussion in a forum on the subject of local workshops for forest bathing. (Yes, this is the kind of thing you encounter living in the Pacific Northwest.)
Essentially, the idea is not too far afield (pun intended) of concepts like meditation, mindfulness, or relaxation practices: you spend time in the woods to restore your mental and physical health.
Back to the woods
I began to wonder how I might be able to incorporate this practice in my daily life. After all, I live in the woods, and when I was more healthy, I used to hike at least a couple of times a week.
Then, I found great value in those hikes. I noticed the smells of fresh earth, mushrooms after rain, and the fragrance of blackberry vines blended with ubiquitous cedar. Forest aromatherapy can be wonderfully stimulating!
There were critters, sometimes, too: bunnies, an abundance of birds, raccoons, and even otters near inland lakes and the shoreline.
The colors of wild rhododendron blossoms were vivid, and the light shining through fern fronds seemed otherworldly.
Birdsong, the chatter of squirrels, even the braying of sea lions along certain shoreline trails made my solo hikes anything but lonely.
Yet, somewhere along the way, I stopped hiking.
Why I stopped hiking
After my last MS relapse, GI problems necessitated staying closer to home, or at least closer to bathrooms I could access within a minute's time.
My hiking pace is fast, making it a good way to exercise, but between that pace and the hills and exertion, plus the problems I was having then with regulating my body temperature—my thermostat is stuck in overdrive, apparently—I would sweat profusely. I tried to use incontinence products to address the GI concerns, but these conditions made them wholly undesirable.
So I left behind these outings for more passive forms of relaxation, like yoga, beachcombing, and neighborhood strolls. And to be sure, these were good experiences.
Since then, though, I've been able to overcome the stomach troubles that kept me close to home base, and now I'm thinking Hmmmm… forest bathing? I like the sound of that!
The art of shinrin-yoku
Forest bathing is known in Japan as shinrin-yoku. In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries identified personal encounters in spaces filled with trees (forest bathing) as a necessary practice for achieving stress relief. To this day, dozens of woodland trails in Japan exist and are dedicated to the practice of shinrin-yoku.
It doesn't surprise me that forest bathing has its roots in Japanese tradition. Where I live, I am surrounded by multiple generations of Japanese-Americans. Their influences in my community are considerable: sushi, mochi pounding at New Year’s, raku techniques by local pottery artists, and influences in landscape design, such as rain gardens, zen gardens, and sculptural pruning techniques.
Celebrating the influences of nature
The goal of shinrin-yoku isn't to identify and catalog wildlife and plant varieties, nor is it meant to be aerobic exercise. Shinrin-yoku, at its most structured, is a kind of moving meditation celebrating the sensory influences of nature in forested surroundings.
Some shinrin-yoku guides will instruct students to use all of their senses to explore the woods (yes, that might include nibbling on edible berries!). Others who spend time directly with trees will detail how simply standing among them can inspire some people to cry, either out of grief or relief. In either case, think of it as going on an anti-hike: slow and meandering, focused not on getting anywhere, but in getting grounded.
Living in the present
I can speak from experience that simply sitting (or slowly strolling) quietly in the woods alone, without devices or intellectual goals, can serve as a one-way ticket to living in the present.
I have spent my whole life among trees, and they don't make me cry. If anything, they make me happy! They're old and crusty and tenacious and strong. Natural mothers. Patient protectors. It feels as if their branches rise up to hold the weight of the world off my shoulders.
What person living with MS wouldn’t want that?
Whatever the approach, forest bathing can be thought of as a kind of emotionally cleansing and clarifying experience.
The physical benefits of forest bathing
The Japanese government has spent $4 million in shinrin-yoku research. What they found is that, while forest bathing is not aerobic in nature, it still offers measurable physical benefits.
- Phytoncides: These are the essential oils (specifically, alpha-pinene and limonene) of conifer trees. According to some researchers, brushes with, and the inhalation of, these natural substances could strengthen the immune system, staving off tumor development and viruses and stimulating healthy immune responses in people with autoimmune conditions.
- Improved cardiovascular health: Some research suggests that forest bathing can lead to improvements in pulse rate and blood pressure. While shinrin-yoku isn’t meant to be an aerobic activity, it can still offer these benefits for those who struggle with regular physical activity due to their MS.
- Better sleep: Certainly, any kind of regular immersion in green spaces—especially woodlands—can lead to better sleep, thanks to mild exercise, fresh air, a calmer mind, and the circadian reset that's achieved by spending time in natural light.
- Elevated mood: I can personally vouch for the improvements in mood that are associated with forest bathing. Depression is a common concern among those with MS, who might benefit from the therapeutic effects of forest bathing.
- Stress relief: Physical and emotional stress can take its toll on a healthy body; for someone with MS, stress is especially bedeviling. Higher levels of stress hormones in the body lead to systemic inflammation, which is at the root of all chronic illness. Stress also uses up valuable energy and makes generalized pain less tolerable.
"Forest bathing could be considered a form of medicine," says Duke University physician Philip Barr, MD in an article published in LabRoots. "And the benefits of nature can be accessed so simply."
Forest bathing and MS
How to practice forest bathing depends, of course, on your access to trees. They don’t need to be full-on forests: a small woods, a grove in your neighborhood, a local park, or farmland where there are trees can suffice (just make sure you have permission to enter these spaces).
People who live in urban environments can usually find trees in public open spaces; for instance, Chicago is famous for its neighborhood groves, a distinctive and intentional feature of their urban vision.
You don’t need to be able to walk to practice shinrin-yoku. If you’re in a scooter or chair or use another assistive device, look for parks with paved spaces; some forests have ADA-compliant boardwalks as well.
You don’t need to go too far in, either. If getting there is challenging, go just as far in as you are comfortable and have a rest.
Weather and climate might be part of the challenge. Pacific Northwest forests are known for their dense canopies, so a stroll in the woods on a drizzly day may simply require rain gear; don’t let the rain keep you away, as the sound of it dropping onto leaves can be a meditation all its own. If your woods or park is less treed and you feel too exposed to the elements, then simply wait for a non-rainy day.
Cold days are probably best spent indoors unless you're like me and feel warm all the time. Just make sure you wear layers and take water.
Extra warm days may be a good reason to forest bathe, as well. Many people with MS struggle with overheating, but packing drinking water and wearing cooling vests or water-soaked bandannas while walking under the shady limbs of trees might be a great way to relax.
Another consideration: "bathing" conditions. Are trails flat and dry? Is it allergy season (and you have significant allergies)? Is your location safe to stroll alone?
Finally, you don’t need to spend hours and hours bathing in the forest. Like most meditations, 20 minutes or so can do the trick. Research shows a 40-minute “forest bath” is probably going to give you the most benefit.
But remember, it’s not about going anywhere or doing anything productive. It’s about slowing down and encountering the woods in the moment.
Shinrin-yoku may also be your best remedy if you suffer from nature deficit disorder. Yes, that’s a real thing, a condition and term that entered therapeutic discussions ten years ago when author Richard Louv published his book, Last Child in the Woods.
The shinrin-yoku practice, in a nutshell: leave behind the structured and unnatural aspects of your life (the office, the laptop, the cell phone, the earbuds) and sink inside the sensory wonderland of nature.
Focus on your breath if you struggle with racing thoughts—that “monkey mind” that wants to plan what to eat for dinner (or other topics on a personal To-Do List). Instead, breathe and listen, allowing the smells, sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and other sensations wrangle you into the present.
Don’t be shy about touching the bark of a tree, and look up! There are lots of beautiful things hidden inside the branches and canopies of trees.
And listen… for the creaks of swaying branches and the rustling of leaves.
Do this long enough and you'll naturally decompress and live in the moment.
Lure of forest bathing
Give it enough time and you’ll feel the hypnotic lure of forest bathing. I've been there myself.
I know I’m now rethinking my fast-paced hikes in the woods now, considering shorter, more intentional “baths” than I used to engage in before.
Trust me, once you have this experience, you’ll want to return, again and again.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the sun is out, my hiking shoes are within arms' reach, and the trees are calling.
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