We all know that being outside is important for optimal health. Between the fresh air, exercise, vitamin D, and other benefits of the outdoors, just being outside as much as possible can have a positive impact on our health. So it’s not surprising that forest bathing would have similar effects. But this outdoor activity goes beyond that and has some of its own unique benefits.
What Is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing, also known as Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, is the act of immersing yourself in nature as a healing and preventative measure. It began in the 1980s in Japan as a part of a natural preventative care program.
Japanese medical doctor and researcher Qing Li began researching the benefits of forests when he was a stressed-out medical student in Tokyo. He found that spending time in nature helped his own health and mood, so he wanted to find out why.
Dr. Li wrote a book on his findings in 2018 called Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. The idea is that if someone spends relaxed time in nature, there are restorative and rejuvenating benefits to the body.
What Forest Bathing Isn’t
Unlike hiking, forest bathing is not exercise. It is primarily about taking in the forest with your senses, not about getting somewhere or increasing your heart rate. This helps reconnect you to the natural world.
On a basic level, this makes complete sense. We were created and evolved living outdoors. It hasn’t been until very recently that we have begun to live primarily indoors.
We all know we need to spend time outside to get enough vitamin D and set our circadian rhythm. But modern life makes it difficult to get outside as often as we should. Even on a good day, many of us still don’t get enough outside time.
An article in USA Today explains that people spend more time inside than they think. A survey found that participants estimated their time indoor at about 2/3rd or the day. In reality, research shows that as much as 90 percent of people spend about 22 hours inside every day.
Luckily, getting outside in nature, even for short periods, can have a positive impact on health.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
Many people know that being in nature makes them feel good. That’s why the camping and outdoor sports industry exists! What’s fascinating though is that there are real measurable health benefits from spending intentional time on nature.
Improves Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health
One of the biggest benefits is an increase in healthy cardiovascular and metabolic health. A 2016 study of middle-aged men found significant health benefits of time in the forest. The study sent two groups of men to walk 2.6km for 80 minutes (a leisurely stroll). One did this in the forest and one in an urban setting. The study controlled for temperature and humidity as well. What the researchers found was that this activity:
- reduced pulse rate
- significantly increased the score for vigor
- decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion
- slightly decreased adrenaline
- significantly lowered dopamine (suggests relaxation)
- significantly increased serum adiponectin (a hormone involved in regulating glucose levels and fatty acid breakdown)
The group who walked in an urban setting didn’t have the same benefits. These findings suggest that the health benefits came from the forest, not from the exercise or fresh air.
Improves Blood Pressure and Nervous System Health
As mentioned, enjoying the forest can reduce adrenaline and stress hormones, both of which can have a positive impact on cardiovascular health. Additionally, a small study published in 2011 found that it can reduce blood pressure by reducing sympathetic nerve activity, which is important for reducing stress and improving heart health.
Stress Reduction and Mental Health Improvement
We know that the body is a complex network of systems that work together. Stress can have a huge impact on overall health (it may be more important than diet!), so it’s not surprising that stress and mental illness are linked.
Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses how nature sounds and experiences have been shown to reduce stress and have a real benefit to psychological health. The research found that patients who took a 90-minute walk in nature reported less rumination (deep thinking and worrying). They also had less activity in the part of the brain that signals mental illness.
Boosts Immune Function
According to a 2007 Japanese study, forest bathing is good for the immune system too. In the study, middle-aged men were taken on a trip where they spent relaxed time in the forest. Control measurements were taken before the trip. After this trip, almost all of the men’s NK cells had increased by about 50 percent. NK cells (natural killer cells) are important for the naturally fighting tumors and virally infected cells. Researchers concluded that spending time in nature helped boost NK activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins.
A 2010 review found similar results and also discovered that NK activity stayed up as long as 30 days after forest bathing. This research suggests that even infrequent trips to the forest (once a month) can still have profound benefits.
How Forest Bathing Improves Health
We know that being outside has many health benefits:
- Vitamin D production – Getting outside usually means more sun exposure and more vitamin D production.
- Exercise – For the most part, being outdoors will include some additional movement, whether that’s hiking, weeding the garden or paddling a boat.
- Grounding – There is a lot of disagreement about grounding and whether it’s helpful. But the general idea is that when we spend a lot of time not directly touching the earth (our shoes insulate us from the ground) we can build a positive charge in our bodies. Being outside (if you touch the earth, like when gardening or sitting on the ground) can help improve health.
- Fresh Air – Outdoor air is a good source of beneficial negative ions. Negative ions are found to have a relaxing and healing effect on the body and mind. On the other hand, indoor air is deficient in negative ions and is often dry and contaminated.
- Healthy Circadian Rhythm – Getting outside in the sunlight early in the morning can have a positive effect on the circadian rhythm and support a healthy weight, according to a Northwestern study.
Forest bathing is likely beneficial for some of these reasons as well, however, it’s unique in a few ways. This outdoor activity is specifically about being near trees and enjoying nature in a leisurely way. The benefits, therefore, do not (necessarily) come from exercise or vitamin D production (being under a canopy of trees doesn’t allow much sunlight to reach the skin).
This activity is beneficial for a couple of reasons that are specific to being near trees:
- A higher concentration of oxygen – Forests have a higher concentration of oxygen than urban settings because of the respiration of the trees. Higher levels of oxygen are thought to correlate to reduced stress and increased energy (this is why oxygen bars exist!).
- Presence of plant chemicals called phytoncides – These natural oils are part of a plant’s defense system against bacteria, insects, and fungi. Research published in 2015 found that these natural oils can have a calming and relaxing effect.
Evergreens have the highest production of phytoncides, so spending time in evergreen forests is ideal. However, anywhere there are trees will work!
How to Forest Bathe
You can hire forest therapy guides to help you get the most benefits from your experience, but it’s not necessary. After all, it’s just a walk in the woods! It is interesting though to learn the research behind it and the particular “art” Dr. Li outlines in his book how to forest bathe.
Here are some tips for getting started:
Choose Your Favorite Nature Spot
You don’t have to go into a national forest to forest bathe. Anywhere where there are trees will do. That could be your backyard, an urban park, or a suburban walking trail. Li recommends letting your body guide you to the perfect spot for you. If possible, find a place away from power lines and other sources of EMFs.
Use All of Your Senses
Take in the forest with your senses. See the beauty around you, hear the birds singing, and feel the leaves crunch under your feet. This is the essence of forest bathing.
Take Your Time
This is not exercise, so there’s no need to walk quickly. Your only destination is right where you are! Instead, take your time and meander through the trees. Dr. Li says as little as 20 minutes is beneficial but two hours or more is even better.
Try Different Forest Activities
Because the point of forest bathing is to just be in nature, it might be helpful to try some different activities while you are in the forest to extend the time you are there. Stretching exercises, meditation, eating your lunch, and drawing are all ways to spend more time in the forest. Just make sure the activity helps you to be present (leave the smartphone at home).
Good for the Body, Good for the Soul
Modern life can make achieving optimal health difficult, but forest bathing is a really simple way to improve health. It has many benefits that last long after you leave the forest is over, so you can easily schedule in some nature time on weekends (or go all out and go camping as a family) and reap the benefits all week!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jolene Brighten, a women’s health naturopathic medical doctor and practicing physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you spend time in the forest? How does it make you feel?