Walking through a forest: Sunlight streaming through trees, birds chirping and wind rustling, the crunch of leaves beneath your feet. These simple pleasures are getting serious attention for the way they could help you feel healthier and happier.
The forest “is a place to slow down, relax the mind, release tension and awaken your senses to the natural beauty around you,” explains Ben “Crow” Page, a certified forest therapy guide and training coordinator for the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT). “We spend most of our lives so stressed out. Escaping that for a couple of hours can feel so good.”
The Japanese call spending restorative time in the forest shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. It became popular during the 1980s when workers, stressed and sick from spending too much time at their desks, were encouraged to go outdoors. As a result, the Japanese government has created more than 1,000 “recreation forests,” and walking through them is an essential part of preventive healthcare.
The concept is catching on here. The ANFT provides guided walks, and meetup groups in cities like San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh; and Decatur, Georgia, foster opportunities to participate in the practice.
Margaret M. Hansen, EdD, a nursing professor at the University of San Francisco, isn’t surprised forest bathing is generating worldwide attention, noting that increases in the number of people living in cities has coincided with an increased prevalence of disorders such as cardiovascular disease.
“With the projected statistic of nine billion people living in cities by the year 2050,” Hansen says, “it may be wise for humans to return to nature and breathe in the identified compounds that are associated with health and well-being.”
Science supports the benefits of time spent in forests. Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that walking in a natural area like a forest for 90 minutes helps boost mood. Other studies found that forest bathing helps lower stress, pulse rate, blood pressure and levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
One analysis of 64 studies on forest bathing also found the practice to have therapeutic effects. Hansen, the lead author, hopes to draw attention to research on the topic.
She also wants to encourage additional research on forest bathing involving “various cultures and locations around the globe, as well as larger sample sizes, in order for researchers to arrive at definitive answers that may in turn be generalizable to the population.”
In the meantime, the latest investigations are exploring the potential for this practice to trigger positive immune responses—a promising new area of research.
Thanks to phytoncides, microbe-fighting compounds that trees emit to protect themselves against germs and insect infestations, forest bathing might improve human immune system function. The idea is that you breathe in these substances, which then boost the activity of your body’s natural killer (NK) cells, the cells that respond to viruses and tumor formation, and are linked to cancer prevention. Page notes that pine trees release the highest levels of phytoncides, so forests with abundant pine species could have the strongest impact on the immune system.
You don’t necessarily need to find a pine forest to reap the benefits, however. Spending time in a park, arboretum, botanical garden or even your own backyard can have profound effects on health and well-being.
“There are incredible neurological and physiological impacts when we slow down and relax in the natural world,” Page says.
Forest bathing can be as basic as taking a walk in nature—without popping in earbuds and listening to a podcast—to soak up the sights, sounds, scents and textures of the surroundings. Guided experiences, which Page likens to taking a yoga or meditation class, are also available.
While Hansen would like to see more studies delve into the benefits of forest bathing, she is still a strong supporter of the practice.
“I am quite biased…primarily because of the effects it has on me. When I walk in the forest and I am mindful of my five senses, I clear my mind [and] feel the stress melt away,” she says. “Make time to take a walk in natural settings and see how it makes you feel—and don’t forget to breathe deeply and slowly while you stand in awe of the great outdoors that surrounds you.”