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Forest Bathing

The name may conjure up some unusual images in your mind but Forest bathing does not require you to wear a swimming suit, unless you fancy it!  

The only requirement for Forest bathing is to spend time in a forest, wood or park. By reconnecting with nature in this way you can reap the physical and mental benefits.

What is forest bathing?

The term Forest Bathing comes from the literal translation of the Japanese term Shinrin Yoku, Shinrin means “forest” and Yoku translates to“Bath”. In practise it means to spend time in a forest or woodland and to be mindful of all the sights, sounds and smells of nature. 

Forest bathing is taken very seriously in Japan. In the 1980’s the Japanese government conducted scientific studies into the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in forests. The positive results of this research led to the Japanese government introducing Forest bathing as a national health programme and it is now considered an integral part of preventive health care in Japanese medicine. 

Whilst the term Forest Bathing may sound like a new craze here in the UK, the principles behind it are not. The practice of prescribing time in nature for the betterment of health predates the research supporting it. Since the 1600’s, people suffering from nervousness or somatic illnesses were offered the opportunity to spend time in a natural environment to help improve their condition. Even the Ancient Romans realised that contact with nature helps people to cope with urban noise and congestion.

With the increasing amount of time spent indoors, in urban environments and distracted by electronic devices, Forest bathing represents a welcome return to the outdoors and an opportunity to reconnect with nature.

Image courtesy of Andy Pritchard

What are the health benefits?

A growing number of studies have found positive associations with spending time in green spaces, such as forests and a host of physical and mental health benefits, these include;

  • Reduced levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress.
  • Reduced risk of health problems attributable to chronic stress
  • Decrease subjective stress and negative emotions such as depression, fatigue, general anxiety, uncertainty and tension
  • Improve mood and attention
  • Strengthening of the immune system through contact with nature
  • Lower blood pressure and pulse rate
  • Positive changes in cardiovascular risk factors as a result of stress recovery
  • Reduced exposure to noise and air pollution

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks"

John Muir

Why is forest bathing good for you?

We all have our own reasons for why spending time in nature help us to deal with the daily stressors in our lives and make us feel better but scientists have sought to delve deeper into understanding why this might be.

When analysing the research in this field, scientists discovered that much of the literature on forest bathing and it’s positive effect on wellbeing can be explained by plant chemicals known as phytoncides.

It is believed that when we walk through forests, we are exposed to phytoncides (natural oils) released by the trees. These natural oils are part of the plant’s defence system against bacteria, insects and fungi. According to Japanese medical doctor and researcher Qing Li, breathing in these substances can have measurable health benefits for humans. Walking in forests with evergreen trees such as pine, spruce and conifers would seem to be the most beneficial as these trees produce the largest amount of phytoncides.

Two theories that focus more on the psychological processes underlying the benefits of spending time in nature are Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) by Roger Ulrich and Attention Restoration Theory (ART) by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.

According to SRT, spending time in natural environments helps with restoration and recovery from stress. Looking at natural elements or being in an unthreatening natural environment activates positive emotions and feelings such as interest and calm which in turn decreases feelings of stress and reduces elevated physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure.

Attention Restoration Theory also believes spending time in nature has a restorative effect by helping to clear your mind, focus your attention and facilitate reflection. According to research the process of reflection whereby one “takes stock” of life is considered crucial for resilience in times of adversity.

Whilst there has been a lot of research which supports the health benefits of forest bathing, the precise mechanisms are yet to be fully understood and more research is required to improve our understanding.

How do I practice forest bathing?

The great news is Forest bathing is easy, anyone can do it.

Put simply, Forest bathing is spending time in a forest, wood or park.

You don’t have to hug the trees, unless you want to of course, then by all means go ahead!

The aim is to slow down, take your time and reconnect with the sights, sounds and smells of nature.

Choosing a quieter time of day to visit a natural environment can really help to encourage a sense of relaxation and calm.

Whilst the recommended time of two hours for a forest bathing session may seem unachievable for some, it is possible to make a difference to your sense of wellbeing after a shorter period of time.

You could easily incorporate Forest bathing whilst out on a walk by going a little slower through areas of woodland or forest and taking in your surroundings along the way.

No forests nearby? No problem! Whilst going to a forest has the strongest beneficial effects, you can practice Forest bathing in any green area such as an urban park. Research conducted by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a professor at Chiba University and author of a book "Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation" has found that similar beneficial effects can even by achieved by keeping indoor plants on your desk at work.

Give Forest bathing a go and see how you feel afterwards!

Resources

The National Trust has a page on their website dedicated to Forest bathing, with suggestions on forests to visit - https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/a-beginners-guide-to-forest-bathing

Forestry England have teamed up with Kate Humble (as shown in the video above) to promote how the nation’s forests can benefit you - https://www.forestryengland.uk/wellbeing

Lots of useful information about the health benefits of forests - https://foresteurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Forest_book_final_WEBpdf.pdf

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr Qing Li

Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation by Yoshifumi Miyazaki


 

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