Forests and Human Health June-25-2014

International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine

Michiko Imai, President of INFOM, Japan, MD, PhD, Mountain Climber

The International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM) was founded on January 1st 2011, after a year of preparation. INFOM has been a strong supporter of the progress and development of research involving Nature and Forest Medicine, a new field that has advanced in recent years with the development of medical equipment related to natural and life sciences. INFOM works for the advancement of nature medicine as well as contributing to health, welfare and integrated medical care. The purpose of the society is to generate global influence through international cooperation.

The history of INFOM dates back to 2001, when Japan’s Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute set out to scientifically investigate forest therapy. Medical research involving forest bathing trips officially began with a research project initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries entitled “Clarification of the Physiological Effects of the Forest Element on Humans”. This project was conducted at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, Chiba University and Nippon Medical School. In addition, the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine was established within the Japanese Society for Hygiene in March 2007 and has been conducting research as well as holding annual scientific symposiums.

Based on these research results in Japan, clinical trials of Forest Therapy® were conducted in the forests. Local municipalities arranged things in the forests in order for scientific tests to be carried out and to let people benefit from the proven results of these tests.

Fig. 1 Forest therapy roads in Japan

Those areas that were confirmed as conferring greater beneficial effects on people than urban areas were certified as Forest Therapy Bases® or Therapy Roads®. Fifty-seven locations have now been certified throughout Japan, from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south. In addition, there are three therapeutic forests in Korea and two forest trails in Finland, which are similar to Forest Therapy Bases® and/or Therapy Roads® in Japan.

The concept of “Shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing) was introduced to the general public in a British Government Forestry Commission Report. The British Government Forestry Commission published “Mindfulness Practice in Woods and Forests: An Evidence Review” on October 10, 2013, and a chapter called “Forest Bathing - Shinrin-yoku” was included in this report.  (Citations from the article by Y. Miyazaki, Q. Li, and W. S. Shin, who are Vice- Presidents of INFOM, as well as Scientific Committee Members of INFOM, account for more than 10% of all reference citations in this review).

The year 2011 was designated as the International Year of Forests. The theme in Japan that year was "Walking in the Forests."  A special event called “Walking Forest Therapy Roads® with a Doctor" was held at ten locations selected from the Forest Therapy Bases® and Roads® nationwide. Physicians were on site to educate the participants about the medical effects of the forest environment on the human body. We continued holding these events in 2012 and 2013, and have carried out tests at a total of thirty-four places in three years. Furthermore, we are now planning to continue these events in 2014.

Based on the results of these activities, we requested a system of certifying Physicians in Forest Medicine, and this was approved by the board members of each country in 2014. These certified Physicians will have been educated and trained in understanding forest medicine and will join in the events with participants. In 2013, the Japanese and North American Chapters of INFOM were established with the approval of the committee of each country.

Fig. 2 Forest therapy

Incidentally, it is well known that Scandinavia and European countries suffered damage to their forests and lakes from acid rain in the middle of the 20th century. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) was held in 1972 because they realized that the auto-regulating mechanism of nature, which normalizes the air and water quality, had exceeded its capacity at that time. While forest resources are utilized to meet the needs for forest products and services, the importance of the preservation of multiple functions of the forest as well as sustainable development, have become an international concern.  Furthermore, the evidence of medical findings on the “health benefits on the human body from spending time in a forest environment” have been seen to be important from the viewpoint of preventive medicine. For that reason, the conservation of forestland and its vitality is also essential.

Fig. 3 Measuring blood pressure after therapy.

Although INFOM is a medical society, we need to develop as an interdisciplinary society beyond academic disciplines. Our research areas can include the physiological and medical influence on humans, scientific research on the multiple functions of the forest, and surveillance studies and effect evaluations on the sustainable economic development of societies that have forests.  At its establishment, INFOM concluded an academic exchange agreement with IUFRO.

Various INFOM committee members have successively reported that COST(European Cooperation in Science and Technology)is due to establish the Benefits of Forests for Public Health in 2014. In closing, we wish the Finnish Forest Research Institute continued success and hope to develop a friendly relationship between our organisations.

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