Last week, I looked at some of the contributing factors as to why the Japanese are the longest-living people in the world and among the healthiest. Diet appears to be the major reason, and at the top of the list is green tea consumption. Studies show not only its association with reduced mortality from any cause but also its ability to induce a relaxing effect on green tea drinkers, as well as a sense of well-being.
Researching this story also caused me to stumble upon another time-honored Japanese practice for managing anxiety. It seems especially appropriate to mention today, May Day — a day that has been set aside through the ages for, among other things, the celebration of the commencement of the spring season. In medieval England, people would celebrate the start of spring by "going a-Maying," gathering greenery and flowers along a trip to the countryside or woods.
A more current term for this practice could be "shinrin-yoku," or "forest bathing." Named by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982, the term means making contact with and consciously taking in the atmosphere of the forest. At least one study has shown that this act generates positive effects on health.
As reported in the January 2010 edition of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine — the official journal of The Japanese Society for Hygiene — the forest environments promote lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments, and this generates health benefits. It's believed that these benefits are achieved partly by inhaling phytoncides, the antimicrobial volatile organic compounds emitted from trees. For the study, field experiments were conducted in 24 forests across Japan. Researchers concluded that even a two-hour walk in a city park rich with trees can significantly boost vigor and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Shinrin-yoku is now used in Japan as a strategy in preventive medicine.
In a separate study, the American Institute of Stress found that deep breathing by itself for 20 to 30 minutes each day can help reduce anxiety and reduce stress. Increasing the oxygen to your brain stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn promotes calmness. Just the conscious act of deep breathing can make us feel connected to our bodies and shift awareness away from what troubles us.
But it cannot begin to reproduce the experience or the benefits of walking and breathing in the natural world — be it a forest, a park, some green space or even a vacant lot, an experience within the reach of all of us.
"We're interacting with aspects of the essence of who we are." That's how award-winning author and poet Patrice Vecchione describes the outdoors experience in her new book, "Step Into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life."
Vecchione reminds us of a time, not really all that long ago, when nothing separated us from the land. The floors were dirt, and stoves were open fires. The water we drank could be sipped from a stream. "Though we've drifted away from that ancient awareness, our cells have not forgotten, nor have our spirits," she says.
Increasingly over the years, necessity has pulled us further and further from the natural world. Yet in a primal way, we crave it and need this connection — today maybe more than ever. It is why camping remains one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the United States. In 2013, the revenue of campgrounds and RV parks in this country alone was estimated to be about $5 billion. But we don't have to gather the equipment and circle the calendar to reap the benefits of the great outdoors. It may be just moments away.
For far too many, it still seems out of reach. The national guideline for physical activity is a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. With age and the onset of illness, this may seem unattainable for many Americans. But we have to find a way.
Says Patricia A. Parmelee, a professor of psychology and the director of the University of Alabama Center for Mental Health & Aging, "As we get older, if we don't get up and move around as much as we can, then we soon won't be able to move at all."
Sadly, for those of us who remember them, there seem to be few places around the country where people dance around a maypole on the first day of May. But we can use the occasion to remind ourselves of the need to get up off that couch, get outside and put one foot in front of the other on natural ground — to reconnect with the transformative power of nature.
As Vecchione reminds us, "when invited, nature rushes in."
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.