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Urban forest bathing: Fresh breath for teen mental health

The mental well-being of young people is significantly improved when natural elements are integrated into urban landscapes. More specifically, the practice of forest bathing.

This new pastime involves spending time in a quiet, contemplative state amongst trees and nature. Forest bathing has been highlighted as a simple yet effective way to alleviate stress and enhance the overall health of adolescents.

This is the core finding of an important environmental study by the University of Waterloo, which underscores the health benefits of incorporating more green spaces into city planning.

Nature’s prescription: The benefits of forest bathing

The research marks a pioneering effort to gather real-time feedback from young individuals on their emotional reactions to different urban settings, including transit hubs, residential areas, parks, trails, and water bodies.

The results unequivocally demonstrate that natural urban spaces are linked to markedly higher levels of positive emotional responses.

Leia Minaker, an associate professor at the School of Planning and director of the Future Cities Initiative, emphasized the novelty and significance of these findings.

“While the findings may not be surprising to most people, what’s significant is that for the first time, we’re able to specifically say this is how much anxiety is reduced when kids are by a park as opposed to by a city center,” Minaker explained.

This insight forms part of the University of Waterloo’s broader commitment to fostering healthy, sustainable urban futures.

Greener spaces, brighter moods

The study revealed that just a brief period of forest bathing, such as looking at an urban lake, could reduce anxiousness in young people by 9%.

Conversely, exposure to a bustling downtown environment for the same duration increased anxiety levels by 13%, even after adjusting for variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, mental health status, and social standing.

As urbanization continues to escalate, understanding the impact of urban environments on the mental health of young people becomes increasingly crucial.

This is particularly pressing in light of the prevalence of depression and anxiety as leading causes of adolescent illness.

Integrating nature into urban design

The research found that the presence of nature motifs, natural vistas, public parks, gardens, and trees in urban areas significantly boosts the emotional well-being of young individuals.

Interestingly, the way adolescents interact with these green spaces — such as skateboarding or socializing — differs from adults, who may use them more for walking or running.

These insights offer valuable guidance for city planners, architects, and healthcare professionals, advocating for urban designs that prioritize natural elements to benefit all age groups.

Engaging teens in urban planning

According to Minaker, involving teenagers in urban planning decisions is crucial, as their experiences and perspectives can influence long-term health outcomes and disease prevalence.

“Teens are frequently excluded from any kind of decision about the cities they live in,” Minaker said. “It’s important to get their opinions and quantify their experiences because childhood experiences influence many long-term health and disease outcomes.”

Looking ahead, the research team plans to explore the connection between forest bathing, adolescent mental health and the broader economic and social impacts.

Additionally, they aim to investigate the mental and physical health outcomes for children residing in high-rise buildings, an area currently under-researched in North America.

Building healthier futures with forest bathing initiatives

In summary, integrating natural elements into urban environments emerges as a crucial strategy for enhancing the mental well-being of youth, as evidenced by the University of Waterloo’s pioneering study.

By demonstrating the tangible benefits of forest bathing and nature-inclusive design — such as reduced anxiety and improved emotional health — this research provides a compelling argument for city planners, architects, and policymakers to prioritize green spaces in urban development.

Engaging young people in the planning process enriches urban designs with their unique perspectives and supports the creation of cities that nurture the mental health of all residents.

As we look to the future, it’s clear that building greener, more inclusive urban landscapes holds the key to fostering healthier, happier communities for generations to come.

More about forest bathing

As discussed above, forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese practice that involves immersing oneself in the atmosphere of a forest.

It’s not about physical exercise, such as hiking or jogging, but rather about connecting with nature through our senses. The practice encourages us to see, hear, smell, touch, and even taste the environment around us.

Developed in Japan during the 1980s, forest bathing has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.

Benefits of forest bathing

Research shows that forest bathing has profound health benefits. It reduces stress, improves feelings of happiness, decreases anxiety, and can lower blood pressure and heart rate.

The natural oils of trees, known as phytoncides, have been found to boost the immune system. By simply being in a forest, one can inhale these beneficial substances. The practice also promotes better sleep, greater focus, and a sense of rejuvenation.

How to practice

Practicing forest bathing doesn’t require any special equipment or significant physical exertion. Here’s how you can get started:

Find a Quiet Forest Area: Look for a peaceful, natural area where you can walk slowly and undisturbed.

Leave Behind Electronics: To fully immerse yourself in the experience, turn off your phone and any other electronic devices.

Engage Your Senses: Pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and textures around you. Touch the bark of a tree, listen to the rustling leaves, watch the sunlight filtering through the branches, smell the earthy scent of the forest.

Breathe Deeply: Take deep breaths to inhale the phytoncides. This is a key element of the practice.

Wander Slowly: There’s no destination in forest bathing. Wander where your heart takes you, following paths or stepping off them as you feel compelled.

Integrating forest bathing into your life

Incorporating forest bathing into your life can be as simple as spending time in your local park or garden, or planning trips to national parks.

Even urban areas often have green spaces suitable for a short, restorative break. The key is to make it a regular part of your routine for lasting benefits.

In summary, forest bathing is a simple, yet powerful way to reduce stress and improve overall well-being. By reconnecting with nature, we nurture not only our health but also our bond with the natural world.

The full study was published in the journal Cities and Health.


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