The Unique Health Benefits of Autumn Hikes
It’s the best season for forest bathing
There is no better time to hit the hiking trails than in fall, and outdoor lovers know it. In Shenandoah National Park — where the leaves are famously on a blazing display — the number of park visitors nearly doubled from over 109,780 people to over 202,300 between the months of September and October in 2018. Cooler temperatures and epic scenery bring hikers out by the millions, but the allure of an autumn outing may also be sparked by something deeper.
John Sharp, MD, a psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, explains that fall is often a psychologically complex season that’s associated with feelings of purposefulness and accomplishment. “Typically, in businesses, this is a season when initiatives get established and underway,” he says. “In academics, people are heading back to school. It’s a season when people start getting in sync with goals and working to carry them out.”
Experiencing the outdoors during autumn can serve as an inherent reminder to focus on the present, says Sharp. “The way to enjoy the fall is really to elbow out the summer and winter and make room to enjoy the season right now,” Sharp says.
With a handful of psychological factors at play, it’s understandable that autumn hikes tend to feel like a particularly cleansing experience. So much so, they might even seem to fall into the budding practice of forest bathing, a restorative wellness experience that takes place in nature.
Nicole Joy Elmgart, co-founder of Treebath, a New York City-based forest therapy program, describes forest therapy (a term used interchangeably with forest bathing) as “a mindful, sensory walk that uses the elements of nature in a therapeutic way.” She is quick to clarify that hiking and forest therapy are not one and the same. “It’s not exercise,” she says. “It’s not meant to be calorie-burning or increase your heart rate. It’s actually the opposite. It’s a very slow time to become more present in the moment and meditate.”
The concept of forest bathing (sometimes referred to as shinrin-yoku) was first introduced in 1982 by the Japanese government as a way to help soothe its overworked, overstimulated population. Over the past four years, it has picked up a…