An Introduction to Forest Bathing

Time spent outdoors in nature is critical to physical and emotional wellness. Sunshine provides our bodies with vitamin D, essential for calcium absorption and brain function. It also raises the levels of endorphins in the body. A 2019 study found that 64 percent of respondents reported improved perception of “life satisfaction” after a 20-minute visit to a park.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that American adults spend more than 93 percent of their time indoors. That leaves only about an hour and a half outside each day, most of it spent walking from cars or transportation centers to buildings and back again. A British study by Lindahls concluded that 50 percent of respondents spent less than an hour in the open air every day.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Forest bathing can offer healthy, mindful relief.

What is forest bathing?

During the 1980s, the practice of deliberately taking time outside in nature in order to receive therapeutic benefits became popular in Japan, especially among urban dwellers. In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term shinrin-yoku, meaning “forest bath,” to describe it and encouraged citizens to adopt the practice.

Japanese forest bathing requires no special skills or equipment. All we need to do is set an intention, carve some time out of our busy life, and head outside. Nature will take it from there.

How do you take a forest bath?

We don’t need a forest to take a forest bath. While forest bathing in the woods offers particular benefits, the core of the practice is finding any calm, peaceful outdoor setting. While isolated areas away from manufactured noise and human interference are optimal, urban parks or other semi-populated places can work as well. Japanese doctor Qing Li is head of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, founder of the Forest Therapy Study Group, and author of a forest bathing book. He says, “You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world—wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don’t even need a forest. Once you have learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere—in a nearby park or in your garden.” 

Here are some simple steps to keep in mind:

  1. Unplug. You won’t need your camera, GPS, or phone. Forest bathing is not about creating and preserving memories, following a predetermined route, or multitasking. It’s about simply being and connecting.
  2. Let go. Forest bathing has no goal. Expect nothing of yourself. Enjoy the relief of knowing that there’s no right or wrong way to take a forest bath. There’s no required path, no proper pace, no minimum or maximum duration of the experience. Allow yourself to wander for as little or as much time as you’d like. 
  3. Remain silent. Avoid the temptation to disconnect by putting on your headphones. If you’re with others, agree to minimize conversation until your forest bath has ended.
  4. Take it all in. Use your senses. Pause periodically just to notice your surroundings. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Can you taste anything in the air? Touch a tree, a rock, a leaf. How do these sensations change throughout the year?
  5. Get inspired. Pause for a moment during your forest bath. Perhaps you feel moved to meditate or do some yoga. If you’ve brought your journal, take a few minutes to record your thoughts or write a poem.

Discover more how-to information including videos, books, and meditations below.

Is forest bathing good for you?

Many of us, especially children, suffer from what experts call “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Journalist Richard Louv is the author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle and describes NDD not as a medical term but as “a metaphor to describe what many of us believe are the human costs of alienation from nature.” He lists “higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, [and] Vitamin D deficiency” as among the consequences of this lack of connection. 

In discussing his work, Dr. Li says, “Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.” His research shows that forest bathing can: 

  • improve mental health by reducing stress, anxiety, depression.
  • offer a greater feeling of calm by alleviating anger.
  • reduce fatigue and increase energy levels during the day.
  • lead to longer and deeper sleep at night. 
  • boost the immune system.
  • decrease inflammation.
  • lower blood pressure and heart rate.
  • measurably increase cardiovascular and metabolic health.
  • enhance self-perception of overall wellness.

While Li and his team are still investigating just how forest bathing offers all these benefits, it seems that the answer lies in the increased oxygen levels in the woods and in the presence of phytoncides, natural oils present in plants. Evergreens produce the greatest amounts of phytoncides, so look for a forest with plenty of pine, spruce, or cedar trees to maximize the benefits of your forest bath.

How long do the effects of forest baths last?

A forest bath increases the presence of Natural Killer (NK) cells in the body. These NK cells seek and destroy cancer cells and bacterial infections, even those that might not yet be creating symptoms of illness. NK cells can detect and destroy viruses within cells without killing the cell itself. One study showed that NK levels stayed boosted for up to 30 days  after a short camping trip. 

How often should you forest bathe?

A 2015 study in Finland concluded that as little as five hours per month spent outside could lower blood pressure and boost feelings of vitality. That breaks down to a daily 20-minute forest bath. Remember, though, that one of the wonderful parts of forest bathing is releasing some of the pressure and expectations that we place on ourselves. If you don’t have that much time to spare, do what you can. 

Prioritize yourself. Set aside some time for a date with Mother Nature.

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