Whether you call it a fitness trend or a mindfulness practice (or a bit of both), what exactly is forest bathing? The term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests. In this article, we shall talk about forest bathing.
Born in response to high levels of work stress and a spike in rates of autoimmune disease, forest bathing was also adapted to improve the economy of rural areas that lost people migrating to cities. Forest bathing has become an eco-friendly, healthy antidote to our tech-saturated world.
It turns out that walking and relaxing in this type of immersive experience amongst the trees may offer various health benefits. That’s why forest bathing is also called forest therapy.
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Benefits of Forest Bathing
How is the practice of spending time in a lush environment good for you? When you take time in this natural green world to “be” with intention and in a fully present way, research shows many mind-body benefits.
One of the obvious benefits of taking a walk in nature is getting away from screens. At the same time, when we enjoy nature, we are also turning off rumination, worry, and obsessive thinking. Instead, we are taking a break and allowing ourselves time to recharge and appreciate.
Forest bathing involves mindfulness. We can achieve a state of mindfulness through various forms of meditation but also through everyday living. During forest bathing, like during mindful activities, we are heightening our senses, suspending judgment, and focusing on the “now.”
Plants and trees emit a substance called phytoncide. This essential oil protects plants and trees from insects and germs. Their antimicrobial properties may influence immunity.
Breathing in forest air increases the level of natural killer (NK) cells in our blood. Our body uses these NK cells to combat infections and cancers. One Japanese study showed a rise in the number and activity of these NK cells by people who forest bathe. In addition to affecting immune system function, phytoncides improve sleep, lift mood and attention, and boost creativity.
The positive effects of forest bathing are becoming more well-known. In one recent study, participants who habitually walked through forests showed evidence of lowered blood pressure. Exposure to tree oil and strolls through the forest may also contribute to reduced anxiety.
Past scientific research found that forest bathers showed evidence of reduced stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline in their bodies. Forest bathing has been proven to help those experiencing not just a temporary stressful situation but chronic stress.
In fact, in addition to other stress management tools, forest bathing is becoming an increasingly popular stress reduction method. Psychologists are recommending forest therapy to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases.
In one research study, researchers reviewed six studies about forest therapy published between 2010 and 2020.
Forest therapy was deemed a cost-effective modality that promoted overall psychological well-being and could be used for those experiencing stress and mental health challenges. The results demonstrated a “significant positive correlation between nature, mindfulness, and measures of psychological well-being.
How Do I Start a Forest Bathing Practice?
Forest bathing is a simple way to relax and revitalize. We trust our bodies and our senses, and we go at our own pace. Forest bathing requires a commitment to a regular practice; it’s not a one-and-done quick fix or panacea.
Research in England on green spaces showed spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being.7 It doesn’t matter whether you break up the two hours into shorter walks in a local park filled with lots of trees or an afternoon under the canopy of a forest.
Just remember to forest bathe regularly, even if you have to schedule the time on your calendar.
Opting for a speedy walk through nature and rushing through the activity to get back to work, let’s say, may not be as effective. Nor is it advised to play loud music as you walk.
Forest bathing requires a different mindset. You are embarking on more of a leisurely, meditative experience. You are strolling through nature in a forest and taking your time. You are engaging with all of your senses. You are noticing the sensations that appear and how you’re connecting to the natural world.
This process of returning to nature can bring you to a heightened state of sensory awareness and a sense of tranquility. Within minutes of entering a green space, your body relaxes, blood pressure stabilizes, stress hormones decrease, muscle tension decreases, and health benefits kick in.
Questions to Guide You
Here’s what you might want to pay attention to as you walk through the forest:
- What do you see?
- Are there different kinds of trees here?
- Do you hear birds nearby singing?
- Can you hear the crunch of the leaves and twigs on the ground as you walk?
- Can you hear the silence?
- Did an animal scurry somewhere nearby?
- Do you feel the rustling wind?
- Do you feel your body as you walk?
- Can you breathe in the scent of the trees?
- Can you inhale and exhale deeply?
- Did you notice the sky above you and its shade of blue?
- Can you feel your connection to the forest?
- Can you reach out and feel the softness of the leaves or the sharpness of the pine needles?
- Do you sense peacefulness?
- Can you savor the time you have here?
Prescription for Forest Bathing
Forest bathing is a powerful wellness tool. It’s a nature-based intervention so you don’t have to worry about chemical side effects. It can also be a complementary treatment to supplement standard treatment, especially for mental health afflictions.
Forest bathing can also serve as a preventative measure for those at risk of psychological and other types of illnesses.8 Those in urban environments without much green space are especially encouraged to find green pocket parks. You can also seek out a forest bathing guide to help you across the U.S.
Some doctors, frustrated with patients who aren’t getting enough physical exercise, are becoming guides themselves and writing prescriptions for forest bathing.
In a world in which we are on 24/7, the negative effects of living hectic lives have taken a toll on our health and happiness. Forest bathing offers a healing way to get back to nature and ourselves. Research continues to show positive health results of this practice across all age groups—from children to elderly populations.
I hope you find this article helpful as well as interesting.