December 5, 2023

Forest Bathing: What It Is and Its Potential Benefits

Immersing yourself in nature can improve both your mental and physical health

Happy caucasian woman hiking in forest

Many people enjoy spending time in nature. But did you know that time among the trees could be therapeutic? Forest therapy is a growing practice that promises benefits for your mind and body. Enthusiasts say it can help you relax and refuel — and give you a break from the devices, worries and stress that dominate your daily life. It might even improve your physical health.

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What is forest bathing?

Forest therapy is rooted in the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which is often translated as “forest bathing.” But it’s not a literal bath. The term refers simply to immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the forest.

But forest therapy is more than just a meander through the woods. Trained forest therapy guides help participants engage in activities that help them experience the natural environment with all of their senses.

Walking through forests isn’t a new practice, but the concept of shinrin-yoku is. It’s only been around since 1982. It’s based on three different traditional concepts: yūgen, komorebi and wabi sabi.

  1. Yūgen is about being so keenly aware of the beauty of the world around you that the deep emotions you feel can’t be expressed with words.
  2. Komorebi literally translates to “sunlight leaking through trees.” It describes the relationship, or interplay, between the sun and the leaves.
  3. Wabi sabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and impermanence.

“The intent of forest bathing is to put people in touch with present-moment experience in a very deep way,” explains clinical psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “The sights, sounds and smells of the forest take us right into that moment, so our brains stop anticipating, recalling, ruminating and worrying.”

If you think that sounds like mindfulness, you’re right.

Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment with intention, without judging,” Dr. Albers adds. “Forest therapy involves noticing and sensing things rather than judging or evaluating them.”

The health benefits of forest bathing

Common sense says that taking in the sights and sounds of the forest can help you relax. But it’s possible that time in the great outdoors could boost more than just your mental health. It may be good for your body, too.

Shirin-yoku has only been around for about four decades, so it hasn’t been particularly well-researched. The evidence that it can improve your physical health is shaky at best. Most researchers conducting studies on the topic say there simply isn’t enough data to come to any firm conclusions. Still, the research that we do have is quite promising.

Let’s take a look. One 2007 study showed that forest therapy reduces cortisol, a stress hormone. Research conducted in 2010 found that people who walked in the forest twice a day for two hours (so, four hours of walking a day) had greater levels of cancer-killing proteins and immune cells.

In 2011, yet another study found that forest therapy was beneficial. It reported that shinrin-yoku had a positive impact on blood pressure and adiponectin, a protein that helps regulate blood sugar levels. But a more recent study casts doubt on some of those findings. It found that forest bathing didn’t necessarily have an impact on blood pressure, but it did reduce depression in a significant way.

Taken together, the science on forest bathing makes a convincing argument that spending time communing with nature can improve stress, anxiety and depression.

That doesn’t surprise Dr. Albers. "Forest therapy engages multiple senses,” she notes. “That sensory immersion directs attention away from negative thoughts and promotes a more positive mental state.”

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But that’s not all.

“Forest therapy can have a positive impact on the oxygen levels in your brain,” Dr. Albers explains. That’s because you’re surrounded by trees and vegetation that engage in photosynthesis. The result: Plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air.

“The forest has higher oxygen levels compared to urban or indoor environments,” she continues. “As you breathe in the fresh air within a forest, you’re inhaling oxygen-rich air, which can support proper oxygenation of your blood and subsequently benefit your brain function.”

Forests are also chock full of phytoncides, which are antimicrobial compounds released by trees and plants.

“Inhaling these compounds during forest therapy sessions may benefit the immune system and contribute to stress reduction,” Dr. Albers says. “And the pleasant aromas of nature can have a positive impact on mood and emotional well-being.” In other words, forest therapy is also aromatherapy. Add the mental health benefits of walking to this cocktail, and you’ve got a recipe for better mental and physical health on your hands.

But chances are you won’t see doctors endorsing forest therapy as a cure for physical or mental health concerns any time soon. The evidence just isn’t there. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter. Enjoying a few hours soaking in nature isn’t going to hurt you, and there’s a decent chance it could help. So, if you think you’d enjoy it, you should try it!

Forest bathing when far from nature

According to the World Bank, about 56% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. They expect the number to balloon to about 70% by 2050. It raises an important question: Are there ways for people to take advantage of forest bathing outside of forests?

At least right now, the answer is: Sort of.

A 2022 study indicates that location does matter: It found that walking in an actual forest had a greater effect on cardiovascular health than walking in a city park.

But when it comes to grounding yourself, something is always better than nothing. If you live in a big city and can’t easily get to a proper forest, Dr. Albers recommends going to your local park or green space. While it might not give you the exact same feeling as you’d get tramping through the wilderness, studies suggest walking in an urban park can improve your mood, your heart rate variability and even your memory.

If you don’t have access to green space at all — or if you just can’t get enough of that forest feeling — try bringing the outside in. Spruce up your space by:

  • Opening up your windows. Pull back the curtains and let some fresh air in.
  • Getting a few potted plants.
  • Burning a woodsy-scented candle or using an oil diffuser to fill your room with the smell of trees. (A 2009 study showed that simply being immersed in the scents of the forest may have a positive impact on your health.)
  • Adding a few rocks, shells, pinecones or crystals to your décor.
  • Listening to recordings of forest sounds.
  • Walk outside barefoot, and physically connect with the earth.

While the jury’s still out on their effectiveness, you might also want to consider trying a grounding mat. It’s an electrified mat that you stand, sit or lie on to — in theory — reconnect your electric current with the earth’s. If you do decide to try out a grounding mat, read the directions carefully, and check it before each use to ensure it’s safe to operate.

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How to do it

Although the occasional forest therapy outing may help you unwind for a few hours, you need to engage in forest therapy regularly to really reap the benefits.

“It’s like taking a piano lesson,” Dr. Albers says. “If you never play the piano after that, the lesson doesn’t make much difference.”

Ideally, you should be immersed in nature for a few hours at a time, but even 15 minutes could make a difference. If that’s not doable, Dr. Albers suggests finding ways to make other mindfulness practices a part of your daily life.

“You can take the forest therapy experience and then form a brief five-minute practice every day,” she says.

Try the following practice:

  • Sit comfortably and notice your breath.
  • Notice anything that takes you away from the awareness of your breath — whether it’s a sound, a thought or a sensation.
  • If you do notice something else, see if you can notice that you got engaged with something other than your breath. Try to let that awareness move past you and ease your attention back to your breath.

“The reason we practice this is that if we find ourselves lost in thought or worry or regret at some other time, we can more easily re-center ourselves,” Dr. Albers explains. “It takes a lot of practice. Our brains have been worrying and ruminating and overthinking for many years.”

See the forest AND the trees

Dr. Albers says forest therapy is a great way to get started with mindfulness.

“Make mindfulness one of your daily habits,” she encourages.

Take the time to breathe deeply and turn your focus inward. If you can, get yourself outside among the trees. Leave your screens, your deadlines and your worries behind. It’s worth it — even if you can only spare a few minutes.

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