You may already know that being out in nature is good for you — research has found that there are several health benefits, from lowering stress and boosting your mood to improving cognitive functioning. In the same vein, the buzzy new trend of forest bathing has a host of bonuses, too, quickly making it the hot new mindfulness activity to try in 2023.
“Researchers in Japan have tried to find a new method to reduce stress by visiting forests and have proposed a new concept called ‘shinrin-yoku,’ or ‘forest bathing,’” Dr. Qing Li, author of the bestselling Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, tells TZR in an email. (Li is also a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine.) “In Japanese, shinrin means ‘forest’ and yoku means ‘bath’. So shinrin-yoku means ‘bathing in the forest atmosphere,’ or taking in the forest through our senses. This is not exercise, hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. By opening our senses, [forest bathing] bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
So why is now the perfect time to try forest bathing? “Stress,” Li says. Much research shows that people have been more stressed than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Plus, the holidays and new year add stress to people’s lives, with common culprits including financial demands, interpersonal family dynamics, and trying to sustain personal health habits, like exercising. And this is where forest bathing can come into play. Ahead, Li and other experts elaborate on the popular wellness practice.
Health Benefits Of Forest Bathing
Since 2004, Li has investigated the effect of forest environments on human health — and a new term and science was coined as a result: forest medicine. Research has found that forest bathing in particular provides both physiological and psychological effects, promoting resilience and calm while reducing stress.
“Forest bathing is immersing yourself in nature,” Allen Rathey, director, Indoor Health Council, tells TZR in an email. “It involves being in a natural environment, getting full-spectrum light from the sun (and vitamin D), inhaling air scented with airborne tree emissions called phytoncides, and, sometimes, though not always, getting exercise.”
The phytoncides trees emit have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. And they’re good for us, too. When we breathe in these chemicals, our bodies produce more of a certain white blood cell referred to as natural killer cells (NK). In turn, they kill virus- and tumor-infected cells in our system.
According to Li, forest bathing can help with common anxiety symptoms and boost immune function. To his point, studies have found that forest bathing can sometimes work as an alternative approach to medicinal therapies for mental health issues. “It reduces the symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, as well as reduces stress and stress hormones while increasing vitality,” says Li. In addition, it can help improve sleep, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and helps prevent hypertension and heart diseases. Li says while anyone can do forest bathing, it can also be helpful as a form of rehabilitation medicine.
“Physically, the benefits are instant, as accessing a forest almost always requires physical exercise, whether it be a hike, bike ride, or half-day adventure,” Race Redomra, author of Fit and Chilled Out, and a black belt in Zen martial arts and meditation, tells TZR. “Trees are the lungs of the earth, and sharing the forest with trees will help to oxygenate your blood, improving circulation and being a wonderful solution to many health ailments.”
And if you think forest bathing sounds meditative, it is. “Mentally, you can slow and quieten the mind, easily bringing you into mindfulness and relaxation,” Redomra says. She recommends switching off social media and tech so that you can reclaim your mind space. “Think of it as an organic mind decluttering! It’s not only enjoyable, but you’re also deeply connecting with nature through a complete sensory merging. So every level of your being becomes tuned in to the clean and pure energetic vibration of the forest.”
How Forest Bathing Works
If you don’t have a forest nearby to “bathe” in, Li says you can head to a local park, too. After about 20 minutes, you’ll start to feel the effects, he says, though two hours is optimal. “The longer the time, the greater the effect,” says Li. He adds that research has found that positive effects from six hours of forest bathing lasts for a week, while forest bathing for three days and two nights can last for a month. You can walk, lie down, sit, practice deep breathing — the idea is to do it in an au naturel environment among greenery, like a forest or park.
“Doctors in some parts of the world prescribe nature to their patients — but we don’t have to wait for a prescription to benefit from all the natural world has to offer,” Mindfulness Expert Julie Potiker, author of the new book SNAP! From Chaos to Calm, tells TZR in an email. When going out into nature, she suggests keeping three things in mind to maximize mindfulness.
“First, practice staying grounded,” she says. “You can get grounded any time by focusing on the soles of your feet. As your feet hit the ground, send your attention to them. Feel the rhythm of each step.” She says to ask yourself: How do your feet feel? Are they in socks and shoes? Barefoot? Cold or warm? Moist or dry? “Focusing on your feet and your steps brings you fully into the present moment, breaking the loop of discursive thoughts that might otherwise take over,” she explains.
Her second tip? Become an observer. “Focus on the temperature of the air and feel the breeze where it touches your skin,” she says. “Notice any smells, and really look at the sights — leaves, flowers, and so on. If you are walking, pay attention to how your feet feel hitting the ground, how your legs feel working, and how your arms feel swinging at your sides.” She says that by noticing all these sensations, you will not be ruminating on other things.
And step three is to find yourself a “here and now” stone. “This can be any stone at all that feels good in the palm of your hand,” says Potiker. “Go out exploring in nature and see if you can discover a stone that you like. Then, feel it, look at it, notice everything about it. Focusing on the stone will break you out of unhelpful thought patterns.”
Potiker adds that ecotherapy is popular the world over because it feels good. “When we slow down, and take in the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we are immersed in — while experiencing the mountains, forests, ocean, rivers, or even city parks — our brain gets a much-needed break from the worrying and ruminating that we primates are wired to do,” she explains. “Our heart rate and blood pressure slow down, and our troubles may fade for the time because we hold them in a larger perspective.” By tapping into nature, you’ll feel more peace in your life in the moment, she says. “Then call upon the moments that stand out to you most later on when you need an infusion of peace or joyfulness.”
Why Now Is The Time To Try Forest Bathing
Rathey says now is the season to try forest bathing since we tend to spend more time indoors during the winter months. “So we should make an effort to spend time outdoors in nature, especially [if we are] in urban environments/cities,” he says.
Potiker adds that, in every season, being in nature in this way replenishes the spirit. “While you are enjoying noticing the sights, sounds, feels, and smells, you are not time traveling to the past or the future, the home of rumination and worry,” she explains. “Instead, you are right here and right now, giving your brain and body a much-needed break!”
She says that another aspect she loves about being in nature is the realization that although everything changes, nature is enduring. “The trees and the mountains have been before us, and will continue after we leave the planet,” she says. “That makes me feel grounded. I also feel our connectedness to all things when I’m bathing in nature, and that feels good, too!”
Another bonus is the realization that when we take in a positive mental state, we are creating new neural pathways in our brains, rewiring our brains for more happiness and resilience, Potiker notes. “‘What wires together, fires together,’ or, put another way, ‘where attention goes, energy flows,’ and neural pathways grow. So, go ahead, bathe in nature and make new, happy bridges in your brain. Your mind, body, and spirit will thank you!”