Back to Fitness: Take A Walk in the Woods

The author’s son “forest bathing” on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

Did you hear the NPR story back in July on “Forest Bathing?” The reporter, Allison Aubrey, was given the assignment to do a report on this growing phenomenon. The phrase “forest bathing” was originally coined in the early 1990s by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. “Shinrin-yoku,” the Japanese translation, simply refers to slowing down and spending time immersed in the woods, and the health and mental benefits that follow.

In the story, the reporter follows a certified Forest Therapy guide through woods outside of Washington, D.C. It was a decent story and quoted a few medical studies that seemed to show health benefits of the practice of forest bathing. And yes, that’s right, there are even “certified” forest therapy guides, certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, where for only $3,500 (not including travel and expenses) you, too, can become a certified guide.

I both loved and hated the story. On one hand, in this ever-crazier world we live in, it was great to hear a story about the benefits of slowing down and immersing ourselves in nature. Yes! It is therapeutic and healthy! On the other hand, here we go overcomplicating things again! So, do I need “studies” to tell me that getting out into the woods is good for my mind and body? Do I need to hire a certified guide to make sure I’m doing it right? Do I even know how to go for a walk in the woods anymore?

Forgive my sarcasm, but I do think that this story pointed out the fact that many of us have become so disconnected from our natural environment that hiring a forest therapy guide doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to do.

As someone who spends a lot of time both alone and with friends hiking and exercising in the woods, I can attest to the physical and mental benefits of getting into the forest. And what incredible, endless forests we have here in Crozet!

The physical benefits are obvious, whether hiking, running, mountain biking, horse riding, or whatever. Regular exercise is important and there isn’t a more pleasant environment in which to exercise than on a trail in the woods. In Crozet we are blessed with mountains and miles of trails!

The proponents of “forest bathing” also promote the benefits of fresh air, less pollution, and even beneficial substances the trees give off that will increase your health. Although all this may be hard to prove, I agree with it. There is something about the air in the woods that just makes you feel healthy. Perhaps it is less about what being in the forest offers us than it is getting away from what modern human life offers us—asphalt, exhaust, conditioned air, artificial light.

The mental benefits are known well to those of us who spend time in the woods. One of the best explanations I have heard for why being in the forest is so good for our mental health is that it gives us time for involuntary attention and mind wandering. My understanding is that “voluntary attention” is when we are consciously focusing on things—like driving, working, avoiding traffic, shopping, etc. “Involuntary attention” is when we are only focusing on things as they happen to come into our view/way. When walking in the woods, we are not worrying about cars, street crossings, industrial noises, or other activities going on around us. The forest is quiet and we are captured by scenery, birds, and the breeze. This allows for some much needed “mind wandering,” where we can think about whatever it is our wandering mind wants or needs to think about. Sometimes when I’m in the woods I think constantly about problems at work that I need to address. Other times I wander through a variety of inconsequential thoughts. Either way, it is a change from the “voluntary attention” that is needed when I am at home/at work/in the car/etc. The forest is a place for us to give our minds the break that we may not have realized it needs.

So, ready to do some forest bathing? Are you willing to listen to a non-certified forest guide like me? Here are a few of my favorite locations, right here in Crozet, to get out into the woods. Spend 20 minutes, or spend four hours. Get into the woods regularly, and you, too, will see the benefits of Shinrin-yoku.

Mint Springs Valley Park: Probably my favorite because of its easy access, just two miles from downtown Crozet, combined with just how wild and natural the upper trails feel. You can find maps on the county’s website, or check out the kiosk in the park near the large, upper parking lot. The trails traverse around the ponds and up the mountains, but never take you too far from your car. You will feel quite separated from the man-made world as you hike up on the Big Survey trail.

Sugar Hollow/Charlottes-ville Reservoir: Also another favorite because of the beautiful north and south Moormons rivers and the fact that you’re in Shenandoah National Park. As you drive along Sugar Hollow Road and go up and past the dam, stay on the gravel road all the way until it ends at an unorganized gravel parking area. Park, and then start walking up the continuation of the gravel road (which is now blocked off to cars). This is the start of the North Moormons River Trail and will take you all the way up to Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail if you want to follow it for 5.5 miles. But all along this trail is the beautiful Moormons river and some of the best forest bathing around.

Top of Jarmans / The Appalachian Trail: Right next to Chiles Peach Orchard, there is a sharp curve in the paved road where Jarmans Gap Road turns into Greenwood Road. The spur that goes off from here is the gravel portion of Jarmans and travels three miles and rises 1600 feet to the border of Shenandoah National Park. At the top, there are just a few parking spots. Get out of your car and start walking downhill down the jeep road into Shenandoah National Park. Approximately one-half mile from your car, you will intersect with the Appalachian Trail. Go left/south and you will start to climb Calf Mountain where the beautiful bald summit of Little Calf Mountain awaits you in three miles. Or go right/north and wind over ridges on some of the nicest section of AT we have in the area.

Now get out there and take a bath!


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