It always works for me.

The Japanese have known for years that spending mindful time in the woods is beneficial for body and soul. Now western doctors – and royals – agree

Harriet Sherwood

Harriet Sherwood @harrietsherwood

Rees & Mount Aspiring National Park Dart and Cascade Saddle Track
It is believed that time spent under the green canopy is critical in fighting a number of diseases and conditions. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

Every day, apart from when it’s raining heavily, Dr Qing Li heads to a leafy park near the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo where he works. It’s not just a pleasant place to eat his lunch; he believes the time spent under the trees’ canopy is a critical factor in the fight against diseases, of the mind and body.

Once a month Li spends three days in forests near Tokyo, using all five senses to connect with the environment and clear his mind. This practice of shinrin-yoku – literally, forest bath – has the power to counter illnesses including cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression, anxiety and stress, he says. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure and aids sleep. And soon it could be prescribed by British doctors.

Last week the Woodland Trust suggested forest bathing – which doesn’t, despite its name, involve getting in water – should be among a range of non-medical therapies and activities recommended by GPs’ surgeries to boost patients’ boost wellbeing.

Social prescribing”, a growing movement in the NHS, can include volunteering, gardening, sports activities, cookery and befriending.

Forest bathing is an opportunity for people to take time out, slow down and connect with nature. We think it could be part of the mix of activities for social prescription,” Stuart Dainton of the Woodland Trust told the Observer. “Evidence about its benefits is building.”

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