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Forest Bathing: Real Benefits & How to Do It
By Ethan Boldt
October 9, 2023
It’s no secret that we spend too much time indoors, especially if we live in a colder climate. But perhaps that would change if we begin to better understand how beneficial it is to be outdoors, particularly in the woods.
You read that correctly: It’s got a name, “forest bathing.” It’s a trendy term that has valid health benefits. And no, you don’t need to live next to a state park to start forest bathing.
Forest bathing is a concept that took off in Japan, where they call it shinrin-yoku. Japan takes it very seriously, as currently the country features over 60 forest therapy camps. In Japanese, shinrin means “forest” and yoku means “bath.” It essentially means spending time in a forest environment and taking in your surroundings with all of your senses.
Some call forest bathing either tree bathing or even nature therapy. While the average park or tree-lined street offers some benefits, spending time in an actual forest goes further in encouraging relaxation and relieving stress.
Trees infuse the air with compounds — phytoncides, or wood-based essential oils that give off scents — that may have very positive effects on human beings. Phytoncides can decrease stress hormone levels in both men and women. Breathing in that forest air apparently provides real benefits.
Also one reason nature seems to reduce stress is by decreasing secretion of cortisol and other stress hormones.
Forest bathing doesn’t just help with stress levels, but may also assist overall mental health. One study indicated that taking a single 90-minute walk helped subjects reduce overthinking in comparison to walking through an urban environment.
For many practicing mindfulness, forest bathing is fast becoming a common healthy habit that they often share with both family and friends.
Studies indicate that spending time in nature can boost the immune system. One study showed that three days of forest bathing improved the immune response.
Shinrin yoku forest bathing can help lower blood pressure, in particular reducing stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline and producing an overall relaxing effect.
One study revealed how habitual walking in forests seemed to lower blood pressure by decreasing sympathetic nerve activity.
Forest bathing also may have a positive effect on heart rate variability. Heart rate variability, or the variation in the time interval between heartbeats, is indicative of how healthy the balance is between the sympathetic nervous system (“fight-or-flight” response) and the parasympathetic system (the "rest and digest system").
It’s important to keep these two systems in balance in order to avoid spending too much time in the fight-or-flight state. Forest bathing appears to help maintain that balance.
Spending more time in nature can also boost your creativity. In one study, backpackers who spent four days in nature and disconnected from their electronic devices showed higher level cognitive function and higher creativity test scores.
It’s very simple. Find a forest, walk slowly (instead of going for a vigorous hike), breathe and open all of your senses.
Make sure you’re unplugged in order to be fully present among the trees. Rather than having a destination in mind when you go on a hike, simply soak in the surrounding nature with your senses (smell, sight, hearing, etc.). Breathe the fresh air, feel the bark of a tree and the dirt below it, listen to the sound of birds chirping.
It’s a good idea to take a few safety precautions:
Check the weather before you head out.
Dress for the weather.
Go with family or friends. If not, then let someone you’re close to know where you’re going and when you expect to return.
Have a first aid kit, food and water on hand.
Make sure you’re familiar with the forest area and bring a map if necessary.
As always, if you have outdoor allergies or a health condition, you should consult your healthcare professional prior to forest bathing.
Overall, there are no specific rules to follow. Just take it in. Spend as much time as you can afford. And do it more often, either by yourself or with loved ones. I’ll bet that you’ll never regret the outing and be better off for it.