In Japan they refer to exercising in nature as shinrin-yoku – forest-air bathing. In the United Kingdom, people refer to exercising in the “green gym” (for forested areas) and the “blue gym” (for water exercise). People have been using the power of nature to heal for millennia, but does it really work?

Studies in Japan and the U.K. do show health benefits from exercising in the great outdoors. A large study of nearly 500 healthy Japanese people, published in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Public Health, showed that hostility and depression decreased and liveliness increased on the days that they practiced shinrin-yoku. The more stressed participants were beforehand, the more pronounced the effects were.

In the U.K., researchers analyzing data from 10 studies of 1,252 people found that as little as five minutes of exercise in nature boosts mood and self-esteem. Other benefits they found – above and beyond those of exercise alone – were decreased blood sugar in diabetics, decreased blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Add water – a lake or stream or the ocean – and the effects were even more pronounced, according to the study, published in Environmental Science and Technology. Other researchers in the U.K. have shown that the greater the diversity of plants in an environment, the greater the beneficial effects on mood, partly by promoting reflection, which helped people gain perspective. 

On a recent trip to Europe to lecture, I was in the mountains near Lillehammer, Norway, in the third week of a cold and sinus infection. A course of antibiotics had improved my symptoms, but they returned as soon as the antibiotics ran out. On top of that, I had been nursing ankle tendinitis since summer. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

Exhausted, I decided that rather than lying in bed, I would explore, and I started along a gravel road into the forest and up a steep slope. I encountered an elderly couple with walking sticks, who assured me I was almost at the top and that the view was well worth the climb. I stood there in the mountain air and thought to myself, “If they can do it, so can I!” and continued to the top.

It was lovely indeed. I sat for at least half an hour surveying the beautiful hills, lake and forest in the setting sun.

When I got back to the conference center, I took a nap and woke up feeling refreshed – and amazingly, for almost the first time since summer, my ankle didn’t hurt. It took another couple of days for my cold to go away, but I can’t help thinking that bit of exercise, peaceful contemplation in the forest and warmth of strangers contributed to making me feel better.

Whether it’s a garden, park or forest, nature can help us put aside worries for a while, and gentle exercise and contemplation in natural spaces can help frayed nerves – and in the process, improve our health.

Esther M. Sternberg, MD, rheumatologist and researcher, is the author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being (2009, Harvard University Press).