Want to lower your stress levels? Try forest bathing

Forest therapy is big in Japan

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Latitude News reader Djeendjeen asked that we look into Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice called that translates loosely as “Forest Bathing.”

Time for a bath. (Reuters)

“Forest bathing,” we said. “Hmmm.”

Turns out that forest bathing, coined in 1982 by the Japanese Forest Agency, isn’t a literal act. It’s more like bathing in the experience of being in the woods. And it appears to have significant benefits to our bodies.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, knew this intuitively. But the Japanese have taken the lead in scientifically proving it.

Japan’s foremost expert in forest medicine, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Center for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, found that merely contemplating a forest scene for as little as 20 minutes lowered the concentration of salivary cortisone, a stress hormone in his subjects.

“Humans had lived in nature for 5 million years. We were made to fit a natural environment. So we feel stress in an urban area,” Miyazaki told The Japan Times in 2008. “When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be.”

Another Japanese researcher found that spending time in a forest improved the immune system in ways that should help the body fend off cancer.

The Japanese government has set up more than two dozen ‘forest therapy’ bases that allow for walking in wooded areas.

So why does forest bathing work? In a paper published in 2010 in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, Miyazaki and two other researchers argue that forests bring benefits to us because we evolved with them, and are biologically inclined to benefit from things “such as the odor of wood, the sound of running stream water, and the scenery of the forest.” They propose our body chemistry responds to phytoncides, chemical compounds forests release to combat rot and insects.

Another study, also publishedin 2010 in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, showed that “forest environments can relieve human psychological tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and moreover, that they can enhance human psychological vigor.”

These studies and others find that while forest bathing generally is effective at lowering stress, different types of forests seem to affect people in different ways. Denser forests with dim lighting reduce anger more effectively, for instance,  and forests with lower humidity reduce fatigue, some types of forests seem to bolster potential cancer resistance, nicely summed up here.

Again, forest bathing doesn’t take a lot of time. The subjects in these studies walked only a few kilometers, at a pace of their own choosing (as little as a mile seemed to have almost the same benefits as a longer walk).

The studies don’t address how the same evolutionary environment also caused us to develop a “fight or flight” reaction that seems to underpin a good deal of modern stress. Maybe, in modern times, forests are less dangerous places than cities.

Virtual forest bathing  won’t have the same effect, but it can whet your appetite for the real thing. So we’ve included this short video. Don’t forget, when you go, stash the iPod and the cell phone out of reach. If you’re going to bathe in the forest, you need to disconnect.

 

  • http://twitter.com/LyndaRadosevich Lynda Radosevich

    Great article. It’s inspired me to take a walk in Central Park. But first, how do I Tweet it?

    • http://twitter.com/LyndaRadosevich Lynda Radosevich

      Forget it. My bad. I see the buttons on the left. I was looking on the bottom. ;)

      • mffitzgerald

        Good, because I wouldn’t have wanted that to stress you out.

  • Djeendjeen

    Thanks so much for looking into this. You make a good point that I have not read anywhere else about how humans were made to live in nature and being in a forest environment makes us relax almost intuitively. Great video too! Between forest bathing and singing, you’re covering it all! Thank you!

    • mffitzgerald

      thanks for the suggestion! It was a fun piece to investigate. Send us other ideas!

      • Djeendjeen

        Shall do!

  • Haldun

    I have recently been to Norway for a business meeting and stayed in a hotel near the forest. Although it was too cold and snowing out there and I was not prepared to walk in forest, I just could not resist the temptation to do so. Then, each day throughout my stay I kept spending at least an hour in the forest. It was like an addiction because I felt so happy by just being in there. This story explains why.. Thanks a lot.

    • mffitzgerald

      Thanks for your comment, Haldun. Did the good feelings from the forest stay with you during your meetings?

      • Haldun

        Well, difficult to say or explain. It was a bit tense not only because of the subjects discussed but also due to being inside a concrete building. But even the thought of going back into the forest afterwards helped in easing the tension. It was like expecting to see somebody dear to you after a long while. Yes, they indeed stayed with me.