October 4, 2014

Forest Bathing 101

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A walk in the woods is far more than exercise—studies reveal it rejuvenates your mental and physical health.

Spending time outside is instinctive and intuitive. After all, we evolved in tandem with the natural world, though most of us—especially Americans—don't spend much time there anymore. But as anyone who heads out for a walk or travels into the countryside for a weekend knows, being outdoors makes us feel good.

A number of studies illustrate both the mental and physical benefits of short periods of time spent in nature. For city dwellers, even spending some time in a nearby park has documented benefits. Forest Baths founder Fru Molnar says that spending time in nature has been an accessible way to co-regulate the human nervous system for centuries. 

"A growing body of epidemiological evidence indicates that greater exposure to, or ‘contact with’, natural environments (such as parks, woodlands, and beaches) is associated with better health and well-being, at least among populations in high income, largely urbanized, societies," according to the authors of a 2019 study.

In Japan, where the practice of spending time in nature for stress relief and relaxation was first formalized, it is known as forest bathing (shinrin-yoku). 

In the early 1980s, Japan’s Forest Agency proposed that forest bathing be recognized as a therapeutic practice. Today, there are more than 62 official sites for forest bathing in the nation, places where there is documented evidence of a therapeutic effect from spending time in them. 

Costa Rican Cathedrals

Another travel destination that is vying for more forest bathing tourists is Costa Rica. The Central American country is home to more than 10,000 species of plants and trees and has rainforests, cloud forests, and tropical dry forests. The Costa Rica Tourism Board says it's the perfect place for wellness therapies that help travelers feel more connected to nature.

"The country’s forests seem sometimes as the equivalent to a cathedral; with its giant trees that resemble columns, and their canopies that are home to a collection of vegetation more complex than the paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling," states the Visit Costa Ricawebsite

The Forest As Medicine

Studies indicate the physical therapeutic benefits of forest bathing come from inhaling anti-microbial volatile organic compounds that plants emit. Called phytoncides, exposure to these compounds (by air) boosts our immune system. It's essentially a natural form of aromatherapy.

One study showed that for up to seven days after a trip into the woods, the test subjects’ natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell) were elevated. The increase was attributed to exposure to phytoncides combined with the stress-reduction experienced just by being in the woods. This research backed up similar research done a year earlier.

Another study examined the physiological effects of forest bathing on a broader level, finding that forest environments, “could lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity, compared with city settings.” 

Getting Outside

While that may be true, getting people outside can be challenging. Heading up the movement in the United States is pediatrician Robert Zarr, who, in partnership with multiple government agencies—from the National Park Service to the department of Health and Human Services—has started the Park Rx program.

Based in Washington, DC, Zarr works with local parks to certify that they are safe, healthy places to spend time, and then he prescribes time in those parks to his patients. In the first 5 months of the program, he prescribed more than 400 patients time in a park, and he's seeing positive results.

But we recommend you don't wait until your doctor prescribes time outdoors. Head on out into nature and feel the benefits for yourself. Find a state park or national park near you, or use this find a forest locator and take a walk in the woods today.