As a senior living community, we’re always on the search for activities our residents can engage in that support healthy aging, especially ones that are accessible to essentially everyone.
Katie Lodge, who joined Heron’s Key in June as a fitness specialist, introduced a couple of wellness programs recently that not only support healthy aging but also have generated considerable excitement for residents and our staff: forest bathing and sound bathing.
Both activities harmonize with our holistic approach to wellness, as they benefit mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Each person has a unique experience during the activity, even though the sessions are held as a group — so there’s a social aspect as well.
Forest Bathing: An Exercise in How to Be Healthy by Being in the Present
Yoga and meditation are both mindful practices. They help alleviate stress and anxiety by encouraging the practitioner to focus on the immediate moment at hand — the now. Forest bathing works in a similar way.
How to Forest Bathe
What makes forest bathing such an excellent form of relaxation is its simplicity. You don’t need any equipment. You don’t need special clothing or shoes, though you’ll want to be comfortably dressed. (Yes, this bathing you do fully clothed!) You don’t even need a forest, really.
Fortunately, we have plenty of forests here in the Pacific Northwest, so we’re more than happy to practice forest bathing in its traditional form.
The whole idea is to find a place with trees where you can use all of your senses to immerse yourself in your surroundings. It could be a park or even a stand of trees in a residential area.
Leave your camera at home or in the car. If you aren’t comfortable leaving your cellphone behind, at least turn it off.
Walk slowly — you’re not out for a hike — or find a spot to be still. Listen to the sounds around you. The birdsong. The sound of the wind in the trees. Maybe there’s a stream or a brook nearby.
Notice the multitude of hues, the greens of the grass, moss and leaves (or the magnificent reds, oranges and golds of the foliage this time of year). Peer into the sky. Is it a beautiful, clear blue, or are there clouds drifting by? Are there shafts of sunlight streaming through the trees?
If you’re in a pine forest, breathe in the fresh clean scent. If you’re in a park, do you smell the fragrance of flowering plants? If there’s a body of water close by, can you smell it? As you breathe in the air, can you taste it, too?
Give your fingers permission to participate. Let them feel the texture of the tree bark, the leaves, the grass.
If there’s a breeze, notice how it feels against your skin and in your hair. Does the air feel (and smell) damp, or does it feel crisp?
Pay attention to what all of your senses are telling you.
A Quick History
Forest bathing originated as a form of ecotherapy in the 1980s in Japan, where it’s called shinrin-yoku. The director of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing coined the term and helped establish the practice as a therapeutic way for people to reconnect with nature. He also saw shinrin-yoku as a means to protect the country’s forests.
The concept behind forest bathing is much older, though. For millennia, people have turned to nature to soothe and heal themselves.
Today, urban planners know the importance of including green spaces, such as parks and gardens, where people can get outside and enjoy nature.
The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
Research suggests forest bathing is more than a pleasant pastime. Although studies so far have been small and have limitations, they indicate forest bathing may:
- Decrease concentration of the stress hormone cortisol
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Boost immune function
- Improve mood and energy level
- Increase focus, mental clarity and, potentially, cognitive functioning
- Promote better sleep
Trees — especially evergreens — and other plants release compounds called phytoncides to protect themselves from insects and disease. When we breathe in these compounds, which are basically airborne essential oils, our bodies increase the number and activity of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell. As their name implies, these cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells. This is how forest bathing is believed to improve immune function.
Forest air is also purer, in general, as trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.
Forest Bathing at Heron’s Key
For our first-ever forest bathing session, Katie and Chuck Hammonds, another fitness specialist here at Heron’s Key, took more than 20 enthusiastic residents to the Japanese garden in Tacoma in August.
For the September session, they stayed closer to home, here in Gig Harbor — where there’s definitely no shortage of forests. About the same number of residents participated. The next outing is planned for Bainbridge Island.
“It was a really pleasant surprise, to see how many people were open to trying it for the first time, and then how many people came back for the second session,” Katie says. “We’re hearing good feedback — the only complaint was that the sessions weren’t long enough!”
Katie notes the sessions are structured enough so that residents have a guide if they want it, but everyone has the opportunity to “get what they need while they’re out there.”
For now, the plan is to go forest bathing monthly, weather permitting, and eventually the sessions may be extended with a yoga class or maybe a picnic, according to Katie.
Sound Bathing: Let the Good Vibrations Begin!
Although various forms of sound therapy have been around for thousands of years, sound bathing in the U.S. has mostly been used for meditation and as a healing activity in yoga studios and wellness centers.
To a lesser extent, sound bathing is also being used as a form of treatment for people living with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.
In a sound bathing session, the person leading the session plays a therapeutic instrument such as a sound bowl, also called a singing bowl. Whether they’re made of crystal or metal, these bowls produce sound through vibrations — like a gong, a chime or a bell.
Those who are participating in a sound bathing session either sit comfortably or lie down, using blankets and bolsters to make themselves comfortable. As the tones from the bowls resonate throughout the room, participants focus on the sound, letting go of stress and negative thoughts.
Proponents of sound bathing suggest the frequencies of the vibrations help to balance the body’s energy centers so that energy can flow as it should. Potential benefits include:
- A sense of calmness
- Less muscle tension
- Better sleep
- Pain relief
- Improved mood
- Lower blood pressure
Session #1, a Resounding Success
Heron’s Key recently had our first sound bathing session, and the room was full! We even had a waiting list of those wanting to participate.
“It was really cool to see how open-minded everyone was, how curious they were about this idea of meditating and sound and vibration,” Katie says. “The feedback was the same as with the forest bathing — people said the session could have been a little longer.”
A few members of the staff attended this session, which Katie was pleased to see.
“Employee wellness is absolutely crucial to prevent burnout, so we can better care for residents,” Katie says. “But also, it’s great when employees and residents get to participate in programs together because it creates stronger relationships.”
Wellness for All
Everyone has their own opinions on how to age well. The truth is, there is no single diet, no one type of exercise, no set of habits or daily routine that will have the same effect for everybody.
We believe the best approach to healthy aging is to choose activities you enjoy that also benefit you mentally, physically, emotionally or socially. It’s why we strive to make sure there are plenty of options and opportunities for all Heron’s Key residents to live well and be well.
“Chuck and I are always looking for ways to get other modalities of wellness out to the residents,” Katie says. “We continue to innovate and come up with ideas for different activities.”
“We’re using these new programs to reach more people with the idea of wellness practices outside of the gym,” she adds. “Not all of our fitness classes involve lifting weights. With an activity like sound bathing, the whole idea is that anyone can come. Anyone can do it, and everyone is welcome.”
What Are You Waiting For?
You may be wondering, “Is it too late to get healthy?” There’s no age limit on getting started on the journey to better health. We routinely see people in their 80s and older trying new wellness activities and having a great time.
Here’s an idea: Come visit us and see for yourself. Talk with a few residents while you’re here. Ask them what they’re doing to improve their health and wellness, and see what piques your interest.
To set up a visit, contact us!
Featured Image: Udo Herrmann / Shutterstock