Run Forest, Run

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(I apologize to the fans of Forrest Gump, as this post has nothing to do with that movie.)

As I have mentioned in a previous post, my wife and I are going for a hiking trip this fall, so we are building up our strength and endurance by walking every day. We may be past our prime, but we can still be fit and healthy in our 50’s, 60’s and hopefully even beyond.

Our lofty goal is that someday we could hike up to the summit of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park which entails 14-16 miles round trip and a climb of near 5000 feet. That is farther than the half-marathons I have done before. Most hikers finish that trip in 10-12 hours. Definitely, it is a huge undertaking.

However we need to take baby steps. So our hiking trip this fall is not as lofty as the Half Dome, yet it will still be a demanding and challenging hike, but also fun.

To gauge if we are ready for our upcoming trip, we went for a test-run (or more aptly a test-hike) to our local state park which is a 45-minutes drive away from our home. We hiked up and down the Ledges National Park. This place is one of Iowa’s most historic and unique nature destinations, especially for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. A four-mile trail system winds through steep slopes and scenic overviews, with sandstone ledges towering 100 feet above the Des Moines River.

Ledges Park is usually full of visitors, just like last week when we hiked there during Labor Day weekend.

But today is different. When we arrived this morning, we have the park and the trails all to ourselves.

I know exercise is beneficial for us. However there is a health advantage of running, or hiking, or biking in the woods that you cannot get from working out in a gym or running around the city blocks.

The Japanese even have a word for it – “shinrin-yoku” or literally translated as “forest bathing.” Even 20 minutes in a forested area can produce positive changes in our body. Maybe I should pick up trail running rather than doing road races.

Besides surrounding ourselves with beautiful nature, it is understandable that fresh air and sunshine is good for us. But there is more that we can get from the forest.

According to an article* from Forest Service of US Department of Agriculture, the trees and plants produce chemicals called phytoncides. These chemicals are natural oils that plants use to defend themselves against unwanted pests such as insects, bacteria or fungi.

When we immerse ourselves in the forest, we are expose to these phytoncides which are not harmful chemicals but rather good chemicals for us. For the trees, humans are not unwanted pests, even though we behave so sometimes. Phytoncides improve the human immune system by increasing natural killer cell activity. These cells fight infection and cancer. Studies show that increased natural cell activity can last for more than 30 days after a trip to a forest. That is amazing!

Other benefits from phytoncides include an increase in anti-cancer proteins; a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones; reduced test scores for anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion; and increased scores for vigor. If you add all of these to the benefits we get from exercise as well, then it is doubly amazing!

So what are you waiting for? Run (in the) forest, run!

Hanapin ang diwata sa gubat. Actually that’s my wife hiding.

***********

(*Photos taken in Ledges State Park)

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