By Roger Dubin
When I saw that this month’s issue of Natural Awakenings was going to focus on the immune system, it occurred to me that it’s been several years since I’ve had a cold or another illness. I’d also just gotten good results from a routine blood test. We all know that blood doesn’t lie.
This got me thinking, “Could all this hiking I’ve been doing actually boost my immune system?” I did some reading, and in addition to articles highlighting the obvious benefits of hiking, like exercise and stress management, I found lots of support for the idea that it boosts immunity too.
According to a 2016 article on TheAlternativeDaily.com, for example, simply taking a monthly hike can help keep your immune system strong:
“Exercise is important, but where you exercise may be just as important. A study from 2009 conducted by Japanese researchers found that when men spent six hours hiking in the woods, they had higher levels of white blood cells and other immune boosters. Surprisingly, this health boost lasted a full month after their walk.”
Many similar studies conducted in Japan and Korea have led to the concept of “forest bathing,” which millions of Japanese people practice every year as a form of preventive medicine. The studies found that after walking in the woods, participants had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe these cells are boosted when people breathe in phytoncides, organic compounds released by trees.
A 2012 article in Outside Magazine notes that Japanese scientists Yoshifumi Miyazaki and Qing Li have measured what happens in our cells when we get a breath of fresh air:
“‘Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments,’ Miyazaki says. ‘Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.’”
Much of the physiological gain comes from an increase in white blood cells and stress reduction. But hiking also increases the body’s production of vitamin D, lowers blood pressure and supports the joints and muscles through practiced movement in a natural environment.
Another benefit I have noticed since I started hiking regularly would probably surprise many people. I used to have knee pain that got so bad that it sometimes required medication. A little over a year ago, I realized that I had not had knee pain for some time. Yes, my muscles get sore after a particularly challenging hike, but that goes away in a few days. Yes, I have made other lifestyle changes that contribute to my improved health. But for me, the biggest change, and the cornerstone of my health, is hiking regularly and putting my body in sync with nature.
So my prescription for a healthy immune system is simple: Take a hike, and do it regularly!
Roger Dubin is marketing director for Natural Awakenings and a volunteer trail supervisor for the New York New Jersey Trail Conference, managing trails in South Eastern Harriman State Park. Contact him at MrNaturalNYC@gmail.com or on Instagram @MrNaturalNYC.