The first time I heard the term forest bathing, I instantly had a perceived experience in mind. I pictured a secluded hot spring in the middle of the forest and a simple cold plunge in a river. Although the name was initially misleading, it's now one of my favorite activities and I fully accept the term for its true meaning.
What is a forest bath?
In the 1980s, the Japanese introduced the term shinrin-yoku, or "forest bath." It's a physiological and psychological exercise that has become a vital part of preventative healthcare in Japan and has led to a healthier lifestyle for people of all ages.
Even though I enjoy a good run or intense hike through the woods, physical exercise doesn't even cross my mind during a forest bath. I consider my forest bath a success when I'm doing nothing at all. Not even thinking.
Simply using all of your senses while being present in the moment is all you need to do. Think of it as "bathing" in the elements of the forest. When you take a traditional bath you're usually just sitting there, right? Probably with wine and candles, but you're not running or doing anything to break a sweat. The same lack of physical effort applies for a forest bath. Cheers to that!
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.
That's a forest bath.
Why does forest bathing feel good?
Maybe it's because Americans spend an average of 93% of their time indoors so when we're outdoors, our brains are in awe? That's just my own assumption and a petty way of telling you to head outdoors more.
If you've read some of my previous posts, you know that I don't like assumptions, though. I like to combine personal experiences with science. Trust but verify, you know? So, here's a little science for you.
One study found that forests promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.
In non-scientific terminology, cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. Higher levels equate to higher stress. Cortisol works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. So, you would ideally like to maintain low levels of it. Spending time in a forest will help with that.
Nearly 40 years of extensive research shows a wide range of health benefits from forest bathing, including decreased stress, improved mood states, a variety of mental health benefits, improved vigor, reduced fatigue and feelings of awe.
That's right, a scientific study proved that my "awe" assumption was right. I'd consider myself a scientist if I didn't have alkynes of trouble with chemistry.
Additional benefits found in other studies include lower risk of a heart attack, higher energy, better sleep, clearer skin, anti-inflammatory terpenes and protection against obesity and diabetes.
All of those benefits just from spending time in the outdoors. How amazing is that? This is why forest bathing has become a vital part of preventative healthcare in Japan and people from all around the world are starting to catch on.
How to forest bathe
Now that you have a general idea of what a forest bath is and some of the benefits of the experience, how do you actually do it?
The ideal forest bath would be in an area densely populated with trees. The more dense the better because of the forest's phytoncides, a pretty cool word to describe the chemicals that the trees and other plants give off that make you feel good. So, a denser forest equals more phytoncides. More phytoncides equals more feel goods.
In Japan, they actually have certified shinrin-yoku trails. A trail can only be certified after blood sampling shows a specific increase in natural killer cells. Remember, that increase happens because of that really cool word, phytoncides.
There are no certified trails where I live so I spend my time exploring new forests in Colorado. Most of the places I go to are recommended by friends who have lived here longer than me, but I also use AllTrails. It's a website and app that helps you find parks and trails nearby.
Also, no worries if you live in a large city. I lived in Chicago for almost six years and found that visiting a local park still helped with my mental health.
If you're new to the outdoors, forest bathing with a guided group is an option. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides has an online database of guides if that's something you're interested in.
Forest bathing is part of ME time so I usually do it alone or with a small group of close friends.
Some days I'll spend an hour in the forest and other days I'll be there from sunrise to sunset. Any amount of time is beneficial, but one study concluded that anything greater than 120 minutes per week is ideal.
How often should you forest bathe?
Most of the studies showed benefits when participants went on forest bathing trips every one to four weeks, but the more often you can go, the better. However, positive results were still seen even seven days after a single forest bathing trip, and even as long as 30 days later.
I found that once you go forest bathing a few times, you'll notice how you feel when you return. When you start feeling mentally sluggish or overly stressed, you know it's time to go back. For me, I'm usually in the woods once a week because I know how I get when I don't go. It's the mental equivalent of when I get hangry. If I go too long without eating, I'm not me. Or at least a me I don't want to be around. If I go too long without my forest time, I'm not me either.
Experience a forest bath at home
When I started to experiment with scent triggers, I found myself favoring wood oils like cedarwood, pine, hinoki and fir. I think a lot of that has to do with my experiences outdoors, which is why wood scents tend to be the most effective scent triggers for me. However, science offers another possible explanation. And by possible, I mean proven.
A 2009 study published in the International Journal of Immunopathology reported that phytoncide exposure in a controlled environment contributed to a “significant increase” in human nature killer cells, a type of white blood cell that is known to boost immune function. This finding is consistent with results from studies conducted in a natural forest environment.
Another study found that simply smelling hinoki oil induces physiological relaxation. I can't even begin to explain how happy that study makes me because I can smell hinoki all day. If you haven't tried it, please do so.
To recap, both studies basically say that smelling oils that contain phytoncides can produce the same benefits of being in a forest. That's something I personally agree with, but I take my experience to the next level.
Sometimes a quick sniff of a wood oil does the trick, but I prefer to spend a little more time for a better and deeper experience. I use scents, sounds and visualizations to help my brain feel like I'm in the forest. If you want to read exactly how I do this, check out the last section of my article "Creativity Slump? It's Hiding Outdoors."
If you're interested in learning more about forest bathing, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram since it's a topic I plan to dig deeper into. I'd also recommend picking up the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Qing Li.