Close your eyes and picture yourself surrounded by trees. Listen to the leaves rustling in the wind, the birds chirping, smell the aroma of the trees and embrace it all. Now open your eyes and consider doing it for real, in an actual forest environment. The real act is called forest bathing.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, is defined as simply spending time outdoors under the canopy of trees. In Japanese, “shinrin” means forest and “yoku” means bath. The goal is to immerse oneself in the forest and soak in the atmosphere through all senseless, just like what we just did in our minds.
When I finish a walk in the forest I feel fresh and energized. This is no coincidence. I recently sat down (virtually) to chat with Katie Mills, an advanced forest bathing guide, to discuss the practice. Little did I know that soon enough I will be inspired and hopeful. The feeling I got from this unintentional forest bathing is not a coincidence, and it might be the solution to many of the rising issues we are facing now. Issues like mental health, isolation (due to COVID-19 or for many of the elderly generation at more “regular ” times), addiction (the different substances and even screen time), ADHD, and more.
This is (old) news
“The forest bathing practice is ages old, but it became a medicinal practice by the Japanese government only around the 1980s” Katie explains. When the Japanese government began to notice the adverse effects of the tech boom on Japanese city dwellers, such as depression, distraction among other symptoms. These effects have only gotten worse over time. As more people migrated to urban areas, the high demand for real estate has made many cities less green and more grey, with few trees and parks to give even the illusion of nature. Cities became concrete jungles, and that took a toll on its residents. This is where the Japanese government saw the opportunity and brought to front and center the practice.
Several studies were conducted to examine the success of such measures, and the results were promising. Dr. Qing Li, MD, Ph.D. — a doctor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Therapy, and the author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness — identified that many of the issues found can be significantly improved by just a few hours of forest bathing. After years of careful study, Dr. Li has found what we all suspected but could not say for sure — that spending time in a forest can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and anger; strengthen the immune system; improve cardiovascular and metabolic health; and boost overall well-being.
Trees are the secret sauce
I asked Katie what’s so special about the trees, and if we “forest bathe” in a different location will we experience the same outcome? Her answer was simple, loud, and clear, “The trees are the key!”. Of all green spaces, trees seem to have a special impact on people’s health. One will not get the same outcome if spending time in a different natural environment…let’s say the beach.
What do the trees “do”?
Besides providing us with oxygen needed to breathe, trees also clean the air by trapping airborne pollutants, thus removing them from the atmosphere and keeping our lungs healthy. Scientists witnessed many health benefits with forest bathing, one is that clean air can prevent respiratory diseases. But that’s not all.
Trees have proven to support our good health and well-being. A study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports in 2019 found people were significantly more likely to report good health and well-being when they spent 120 minutes or more in nature a week. By the way, the study found that spending less than two hours by the trees didn’t make a difference.
When practicing forest bathing, we can see reduction in our blood pressure and boost of our immune system. Time in a forest is linked to decreased inflammation, which has been implicated in chronic disease.
If that’s not enough, scientists have repeatedly found that human anticancer natural killer cells significantly increase after walks in a forest. In one such study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents, the number and activity of killer cells increased after two walks, each two hours long, in a one-day trip to a forest park. So did anti-cancer proteins, according to the research led by Dr Qing Li.
When we can’t visit the trees, watching them from the window will affect us as well. A study examining patients with views of trees from their hospital windows found that they recover faster, require less pain medication, and have fewer complications than those with views of building structures.
Up until now we discussed the physical benefits for spending time in the forest, and those trees keep on giving, they support us mentally too.
For example, people exposed to areas with good canopy cover have been shown to experience a third less psychological stress. This was not the case in other green spaces like a grassy meadow. The interesting find was that even viewing deciduous bare trees during the winter time has been found to lead to positive psychological impacts.
Another is our brains. Scientists also found that natural environments have been shown to improve performance on working memory, cognitive-flexibility, and attentional-control tasks.
I can go on and on… but I think you got the idea.
“Wherever there are trees, we are healthier and happier,” Dr. Li writes in his book,” it isn’t about exercising — like hiking or jogging — it’s simply about being in nature.”
By the way, a quick reassuring note — during forest bathing you are not going to get wet, there is no water in sight (unless there is one in your forest), only you and the trees.
How can one do it?
Forest bathing can be done on your own or with a guide. “You may feel more comfortable forest bathing under the guidance of a certified guide, though it is not mandatory or recommended for everyone”, Katie says. “If you are new to the outdoors and the forest environment, forest bathing with a guided group may be best for you.” she adds. If there is no guide, no big deal. You can still do it on your own.
Here are some guidelines.
First pick your location. The key here is to find a place where you can experience natural outdoor settings, obviously one with trees. It can be a forest, urban park, or nature preserve with wide, flat, and gentle walking paths. Make sure it’s a place where you will be comfortable and relaxed.
Take your time and look around as you stroll along on a forest path. Stop every once in a while and sit or look up and all around. Be still.
Engage your senses and observe your surroundings. Listen to the sounds of the forest. Look at the scenery surrounding you. Take slow deep breaths and smell the fragrance of the forest air. Touch the trees, feel the leaves and soil.
Make sure you are not to be disturbed for the time you dedicated for your walk. Leave your phone at home, or switch it off. The goal is to minimize distractions and let yourself fully immerse in the forest environment.
How long? Take as long as you need. Katie suggests carving at least 2 hours. Obviously do it for as much as you like, the longer the better. Enjoy!
By the way, you noticed I suggested leaving the phone out of sight. One more benefit of forest bathing is giving us, is control on our device. The two-hour forest bath will even help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment, de-stress, and relax you.
Give it a try and leave me a note at the comment section sharing how you felt after.