We are all drawn to wild places. Something in the heart opens and something in the mind relaxes when we are deep within the quiet majesty of Nature. In the words of John Muir, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Muir would have been pleased then, by the latest health trend: forest bathing.
Forest bathing is simply the act of immersing ourselves in a forest — leaving civilization behind and letting the sights, smells, and sounds of the forest wash over us. We’re all familiar with how good a walk in the woods makes us feel, and now we have the science to explain why. Forest bathing has been shown to benefit our immune systems and our hearts, while lowering levels of stress hormones that keep us wound up tight.
This makes perfect sense if you think about it. Our bodies respond to being in Nature by coming back into balance because we are a part of Nature, too. Being in the forest feels like coming home. Being surrounded by trees feels like exhaling a breath we’ve been holding way too long.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoko, has only recently caught on in the United States, but it originated in Japan several decades ago. Japan is full of busy metropolitan areas, but it also has plentiful green space near or within these cities. Woven into Japanese culture is an appreciation for walking among the trees, breathing deeply, and listening to the sounds of Nature, thus allowing the body and spirit to uncoil.
Dr. Qing Li, associate professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and author of the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, has conducted several studies on forest bathing. He believes its benefits are partly due to the stress reduction that occurs when we unplug, slow down, and connect with Nature. But there could be more to it than that. Dr. Li notes that trees release compounds called phytoncides, which we breathe in when we walk in the woods. These compounds seem to strengthen the immune system. 1,2
One of Dr. Li’s studies found that when people took a three-day, two-night trip to a forested area, the number and activity of immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells went up, while stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline went down. The effect was surprisingly long-lasting: volunteers’ NK cells maintained heightened activity 30 days after the trip! 3
Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a long weekend forest bathing for it to work its magic. Even a two-hour walk in a leafy park decreases blood pressure and stress hormones compared to a two-hour walk in the city, another study found. 4
How do you get started? Just go to a wooded place and spend a few hours there. You might do yoga or tai chi or meditate, or walk barefoot, or take a journal and make note of what you’re seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching — whatever helps you take in your surroundings. The benefits increase over time, so forest bathing on a weekly basis is ideal. Once you’ve relaxed into the embrace of Nature, your nervous system will calm down, your immune system will perk up, and life may just feel more fulfilling, even on days when you’re stuck inside.
1 Why “forest bathing” is the new health trend. Vegetarian Times. 2016 Jul 26. https://www.vegetariantimes.com/health-and-nutrition/why-forest-bathing-is-the-new-health-trend
2 Gleiser M. Suffering from nature deficit disorder? Try forest bathing. NPR. 2018 Apr 4. https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2018/04/04/599135342/suffering-from-nature-deficit-disorder-try-forest-bathing
3 Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan;15(1):9-17.
4 Li Q, et al. Acute effects of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Nov;111(11):2845-53.