Getting back to nature: The benefits of forest bathing
By Sogol Mousavi
Many trends have come and gone in the last year, from fake news to fidget spinners. However, one trend is actually beneficial for individuals and has proven health benefits – forest bathing. It was created by the Japanese and it is now considered one of the top relaxation/stress management activities in Japan and around the world.
The idea is simple. An individual simply visits a forest or a similar natural area and walks or sits in a relaxed and calming manner to reap the benefits. It entails breathing in volatile organic compounds called phytoncides (wood essential oils). These phytoncides are derived from trees and have antimicrobial properties.
Despite the name, forest bathing doesn’t actually traditionally involve water. Rather, it as a form of meditation, where the walker is encouraged to move slowly and focus on absorbing the surrounding sights, smells and sounds through their multiple senses.
Leaving the fast-paced rhythm of urban life into a quiet sanctuary will ease anxiety levels. It’s not unusual for doctors in Asia to prescribe a weekly dose of forest bathing as a complementary (and complimentary!) therapy for conditions such as high blood pressure, insomnia, immune disorders, and to assist in patient recovery following surgical procedures.(3)
As of 2004, there have been studies conducted by Yuko Tsunetsugu, Bum-Jin Park, and Yoshifumi Miyazaki to assess the potential outcomes of “Therapeutic Effects of Forests” on physical and mental health (to the cost of about $4 million dollars). Their work highlighted how being in a natural setting affected the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch.(1)
Besides the laboratory studies, there have also been field studies in which participants took 20 minute walks in Seiwa Prefectural Forest Park, containing mostly oak trees and compared to the control setting of Chiba station. Those who walked the forest showed much lower haemoglobin concentrations in the prefrontal cortex, as compared to those walking in Chiba station, indicating that the “home base for executive function has switched a few lights off.”(4) The final results indicated an increase in mental concentration and decreased levels of stress hormones when the subjects were in the forest.(1)
Lastly, a research review conducted in 2010 indicated that forest environments promoted lower concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone), lower pulse, lower blood pressure and greater parasympathetic nerve activity than city environments.(2)
In addition to all the health benefits, an added bonus is that most forests don’t have great mobile phone reception so you are required to digitally detox. Then there are the physical perks – for example, walking on uneven ground means you are engaging your core.
If you’re wondering how to reap the benefits of forest bathing yourself (which can last up to 7 days), here’s how to do it:
- For safety reasons, it’s recommended that you go with a group. Always inform others of your plans and your intended time of return.
- Do a quick search for local trails in your area. Plan out the duration and the gradient of the terrains before you go. Certain websites feature maps that can be accessed while offline.
- Bring proper gear with you, including waterproof attire, water, and appropriate footwear, such as hiking boots.
- Pack a first aid kit or supplies to use in case of emergencies or injuries.
- Bring your sense of adventure and get ready to relax.
1. Tsunetsugu, Yuko; Park, Bum-Jin; Miyazaki, Yoshifumi (2009). “Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan”. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 15 (1): 27–37.
2. Park, Bum Jin; Tsunetsugu, Yuko; Kasetani, Tamami; Kagawa, Takahide; Miyazaki, Yoshifumi (2009). “The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan”. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 15 (1): 18–26.
3. Amy Molloy (2017). “Health and Nature: Forest Therapy for Depression, Stress and High Blood Pressue”. Body and Soul.
4. Florence Williams (2012). “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning” Outside.