Forest Bathing: The Secret to Health and Happiness?

Get back to nature.

woman standing in forest, forest bathing
istock/szefeiCredit: istock/szefei

That sense of vigor, clarity, and renewed energy you get after being in nature? It’s a real thing.

Yes, a simple walk in the woods, referred to as forest bathing (which is not, in fact, getting naked in nature and exfoliating with bark) has been used medicinally and culturally to boost immune function, lower the risk of certain diseases, relieve stress and anxiety, and even increase energy and creativity. But is a trail walk really all that and more?

What is Forest Bathing?

Forest bathing has its roots in Japan, where it’s known as shinrin-yoku. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the word in the 1980s. Translated, shinrin-yoku literally means, “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.”

Since the eighties, this practice has been prevalent in Asian cultures where it is known to promote physiological and psychological health and wellbeing.

Recently, the act of forest bathing spread across the globe; this experience can now be found as guided adventures at boutique resorts and wellness retreats across the world.

Take an hour-long forest bathing excursion at the L’Auberge de Sedona in Arizona among pines and a dramatic forest and desert backdrop. Or, pay a visit to secluded Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, which offers a spa, wellness center, and a focus on forest bathing and being in nature among the lush landscape of the Appalachians Mountains. Sign me up.

How to Forest Bathe

To partake in this practice on your own, simply visit a natural forest area and take in the space. The forest in question does not necessarily need to be miles of rugged, untamed wilderness; a simple green and grassy public park will due just fine.

Ben Page, a certified forest therapy guide and founder of Shinrin Yoku Los Angeles, considers that a forest bathing walk is different than just any regular walk in nature. “So whereas a nature walk’s objective is to provide informational content and a hike’s is to reach a destination, a Shinrin-yoku walk’s objective is to give participants an opportunity to slow down, appreciate things that can only be seen or heard when one is moving slowly, and take a break from the stress of their daily lives,” he says.

Be present in nature. Turn off your cell phone, or at least put it on airplane mode. Forget the stresses of day-to-day life and instead focus on the trees, dirt, air, and plants. Breathe and soak in the beauty of the forest and plants (or public park) around you.

forest bathing
Caucasian woman looking at view on tea plantation in Munnar, India

The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

Forest bathing feels good, but is it clinically proven to heal? Studies have shown that forest bathing can improve immune system function by boosting the production of natural-killer cells (which target bad cells, like cancer cells), reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, and reduce inflammation.

The practice may also improve mood, increase ability to focus, and improve sleep. Regularly practicing forest bathing may lead to deeper intuition, increased flow of energy, and an overall sense of health and happiness.

Forest bathing’s most widely studied property is its effect on stress. A 2010 study published in Environmental Health Preventative Medicine looked at research in 24 forests across Japan. The study found that those who participated in forest bathing had lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and lower concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva, as compared to those who typically walked through city settings.

Another 2011 study showed that forest bathing increased parasympathetic nervous activity (the rest and digest state) and significantly decreased sympathetic nervous activity (fight or flight) in those that walked in forest environments, compared to urban environments.

Should You Try Forest Bathing?

Yes. There are no studies to show adverse affects of forest bathing on human health. If you’re an urbanite who rarely sees green spaces, you may need forest bathing even more.

Grab some comfy sneakers, turn the phone off, and hit the trail. Your mood, immune function, and health will thank you.

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Kate Gavlick is a nutritionist with a masters degree in nutrition. Hailing from Portland Oregon, and has a passion... More about Kate Gavlick