Forest Walking and Forest Qigong Improve Cognitive Function in the Elderly
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“forest bathing has received increasing attention due to its health-promoting effects, including enhancing immune functions and decreasing blood pressure in hypertension patients, as well as stress relief effects.” – Genxiang Mao,
Modern living is stressful, perhaps, in part because it has divorced us from the natural world that our species was immersed in throughout its evolutionary history. Modern environments may be damaging to our health and well-being simply because the species did not evolve to cope with them. This suggests that returning to nature, at least occasionally, may be beneficial. Indeed, researchers are beginning to study nature walks or what the Japanese call “Forest Bathing” and their effects on our mental and physical health.
Mindfulness practices have been found routinely to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress and improve mood. People have long reported that walking in nature elevates their mood. It appears intuitively obvious that if mindfulness training occurred in a beautiful natural place, it would greatly improve the effectiveness of mindfulness practice. In fact, being in nature has been shown to improve psychological health.
Qigong has been practiced for thousands of years with benefits for health and longevity. Qigong training is designed to enhance function and regulate the activities of the body through regulated breathing, mindful concentration, and gentle movements. Qigong practice has been found to be effective for an array of physical and psychological issues. Qigong has been shown to help the elderly improve attention, balance, reducing falls, arthritis, cognitive function, memory, and reduce age related deterioration of the brain. So, it makes sense to further study the ability of Qigong training particularly when practiced in nature to improve well-being in the elderly.
In today’s Research News article “Psycho-Electrophysiological Benefits of Forest Therapies Focused on Qigong and Walking with Elderly Individuals.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7999348/ ) Yi and colleagues recruited healthy elderly (65 years of age and older) participants and assigned them to one of 3 conditions; no-treatment control, forest walking, or forest Qigong. The forest programs were 2 hours per session twice per week for 6 weeks and included warm-up exercises, stretching, physio-cognitive play, and cool-down along with 50 minutes of either forest walking, or forest Qigong. They were measured before and after training for cognitive impairment, depression, and quality of life. They also had the electroencephalogram (EEG) and electrocardiogram (EKG) recorded. Bioimpedance was used to determine body composition and nutritional metabolism.
They found that in comparison to baseline and the no-treatment control condition, the forest qigong group had a significant decrease in depression while the forest walking group had a significant decrease in cognitive impairment and increase in quality of life. In the EEG, the forest walking group had significant increases in Alpha and Beta rhythm power and a significant decrease in low frequency heart rate variability after training while the control and forest qigong groups did not. In addition, the forest qigong group had a significant increase in the upper body bioimpedance phase angle while the forest walking group had a significant increase in the lower body bioimpedance phase angle.
Bioimpedance phase angle is an indicator of the metabolic nutrition of the muscles. So, the practice of qigong in the forest appears to increase the metabolic nutritional status of the upper body while walking in the forest appears to increase the metabolic nutritional status of the lower body. This is not surprising as qigong involves frequent arm movements while walking involves more leg movements. Low frequency heart rate variability is an indicator of sympathetic nervous system activity and its decrease in the forest walking group suggests that walking in the forest is physiologically relaxing, reducing activating sympathetic activity. Finally, EEG power is indicative of brain information processing and its increase with forest walking is indicative of an increase in information (cognitive) processing.
These findings are interesting and suggest that walking in the forest and qigong in the forest have different effects on elderly individuals. Where forest qigong appears to be superior for decreasing depression and upper body metabolism, forest walking appears to improve cognitive ability, lower body metabolism, and physiological relaxation. Hence qigong in the forest is superior for emotional health while walking in the forest is superior for cognitive health. This suggests that the combination of qigong and walking in the forest may produce better well-being for elderly individual.
So, forest walking and forest qigong improve cognitive function in the elderly.
“Forest bathing, also known as forest therapy or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, is an evidence-based practice of connecting to nature as a way to heal.” – Credible Mind
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Yi, J., Kim, S. G., Khil, T., Shin, M., You, J. H., Jeon, S., Park, G. H., Jeong, A. Y., Lim, Y., Kim, K., Kim, J., Kang, B., Lee, J., Park, J. H., Ku, B., Choi, J., Cha, W., Lee, H. J., Shin, C., Shin, W., … Kim, J. U. (2021). Psycho-Electrophysiological Benefits of Forest Therapies Focused on Qigong and Walking with Elderly Individuals. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(6), 3004. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063004
We developed two distinct forest therapy programs (FTPs) and compared their effects on dementia prevention and related health problems for older adults. One was focused on Qigong practice in the forest (QP) and the other involved active walking in the forest (WP). Both FTPs consisted of twelve 2-h sessions over six weeks and were conducted in an urban forest. We obtained data from 25, 18, and 26 participants aged 65 years or above for the QP, WP, and control groups, respectively. Neuropsychological scores via cognition (MoCA), geriatric depression (GDS) and quality of life (EQ-5D), and electrophysiological variables (electroencephalography, bioimpedance, and heart rate variability) were measured. We analyzed the intervention effects with a generalized linear model. Compared to the control group, the WP group showed benefits in terms of neurocognition (increases in the MoCA score, and alpha and beta band power values in the electroencephalogram), sympathetic nervous activity, and bioimpedance in the lower body. On the other hand, the QP group showed alleviated depression and an increased bioimpedance phase angle in the upper body. In conclusion, both active walking and Qigong in the forest were shown to have distinctive neuropsychological and electrophysiological benefits, and both had beneficial effects in terms of preventing dementia and relieving related health problems for elderly individuals.