This summer, I'm having a love affair with the Colorado Rockies!
We live about an hour away from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
And now that our kids are older, we've been able to fit in a number of short, not-too-strenuous walks through its woods and tundra.
Despite the effort it takes to plan, pack, drive, and shuttle to hiking trails, we've returned again and again.
Each time, I leave feeling stronger, more grounded, and much less anxious about, well, everything.
This got me wondering – this time spent in natural, green settings provide proven healing powers?
What exactly is a forest bath?
My reading led me to a number of studies, most of which were performed in Japan.
And through this digging around I learned about a new concept in Japanese culture called "shinrin-yoku”, meaning "forest bath.”
The Japanese idea of forest bathing developed in the 80s, and drew the attention scientific researchers.
A growing body of evidence supports the idea that spending time among the trees delivers diverse health benefits … and this research is beginning to spread globally.
Michelle Lee is a writer and avid home chef, with 20 years of experience focusing on healthy lifestyle, diet and the home kitchen.
When not playing around with words, she loves to cook, spend time with her two children, play cribbage with her husband, and tackle The New York Times crossword puzzle
Forest baths aren't about strenuous hiking or bagging trophy peaks – it's just a matter of roaming a forest and connecting to your natural surroundings.
Check out the amazing array of health benefits attributed to forest bathing:
- More energy
- Better mood
- Reduced stress
- Lower blood pressure
- Enhanced immune health
- Speedier recovery from illness or surgery
- Improved focus, particularly in children with attention issues
Let's take a closer look at the three best-documented benefits on this list.
#1 – Reduce your stress levels
This may be the easiest to anticipate yet the most profound benefit of forest bathing.
While logic and life-experience points to the relaxing benefits of being outdoors, a team of Japanese researchers set out to quantify the stress-reducing benefits of spending time in the forest.
Field experiments were conducted in 24 forests across Japan – in each experiment, 12 subjects walked either in a wooded or urban environment.
Six went to the woods, six went to the city, and then on the next day the groups switched.
Before and after each visit, researchers measured key indicators of the body's stress response: cortisol levels, pulse rate, blood pressure and changes in heart rate.
The results showed that – compared with city environments – forest sojourns reduced cortisol levels, pulse rates, and blood pressure.
Forest walks also affected the nervous system in two beneficial ways: they reduced sympathetic nerve activity and increased parasympathetic nerve activity.
According to researchers: "The results of the physiological measurements suggest that Shinrin-yoku [forest bathing] can aid in effectively relaxing the human body.”
#2 – Lower your blood pressure
Not only can you feel more relaxed from being outside, but you can actually lower your blood pressure by forest bathing.
A 2012 Japanese study in older adults compared the effects of forest bathing to time spent in an urban area.
The researchers measured the effects of each environment on a number of factors, including inflammation, mood, and blood pressure.
Study participants went on a 7-day trip to an evergreen forest, while the control group was sent to a city area.
The control group showed no significant changes in their results.
In contrast, the "forest bathers” enjoyed significant drops in blood pressure and bio-markers for inflammation, both of which are linked to better cardiovascular health.
#3– Boost your immune health
In addition to heart benefits, walks in the woods also provide a significant and profound immune lift that lasts.
A 2010 Japanese study analyzed specific immune-boosting benefits of forest bathing.
The participating adults spent three days in a forest, and had their blood analyzed after 2 days, 3 days, 7 days and 30 days, to measure the levels and activity of the immune system's "natural killer” (NK) cells.
Natural killer cells are white blood cells that protect us against virus-infected and cancerous cells.
The control group went about their normal work days, and underwent the identical NK cell analyses.
Amazingly, NK cell levels were significantly higher after just two days in the forest … and this improvement lasted for more than 30 days.
The encouraging results suggest that a monthly forest journey delivers lasting immunity benefits.
How fast do nature walks work?
How much "green time” do you need to gain significant benefits?
A 2010 meta-analysis of the available evidence measured the effects of "green exercise” on mood and self-esteem.
The benefits were almost instantaneous, with participants reporting a mood-lift in just under five minutes.
In fact, the reported mood and self-esteem boosts occurred regardless of the duration, intensity, or location of the "green exercise”, and were reported by participants of both genders, all ages, and varying health status.
So, if you need a quick mood-boost, just duck outside for a few minutes!
As the researchers put it: "Exposure to nature via green exercise can be thus conceived as a readily available therapy with no obvious side effects.”
What's your relationship with the forest?
I'd love to hear more about your walking meditations, forest baths and other outdoor adventures.
Please email me and let me know!
- Barton J, Pretty J. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environ Sci Technol. 2010 May 15; 44(10): 3947-55.
- Mao GX1, Cao YB, Lan XG, He ZH, Chen ZM, Wang YZ, Hu XL, Lv YD, Wang GF, Yan J. Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly. J Cardiol. 2012 Dec; 60(6): 495-502.
- Park BJ1, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 18-26.
- Qing Li. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 9–17.