If you’d like to branch out your wellness routine, try forest bathing. (See what we did there?) What is forest bathing? It's taking time to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of a natural place to boost your mental and physical health. And according to several studies, forest bathing has real benefits for blood pressure, anxiety, and stress relief.
Forest bathing is the modern translation for the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-yoku. The practice literally means “soak the forest atmosphere,” and it became an official recommendation from the Japanese government in 1982. But the idea of forest bathing as a wellness concept goes back way further—all the way to the 6th Century B.C., when the Persian emperor Cyrus II created what’s thought to be the first public park in Pasargadae, which is now Iran. (Yes, we loved Carmen Sandiego. Can’t you tell?)
Forest bathing may have ancient roots, but modern science is confirming its health benefits with state-of-the-art data. Among the findings:
- Forest bathing exposes people to airborne organic compounds called phytoncides that can combat stress, lower blood pressure, and help improve mood.
- There’s also mycobacterium vaccae, a natural compound in soil that’s been proven to increase brain function and energy levels.
- Walking among plant life also increases your exposure to terpenes, the largest class of organic compounds produced by various plants, and one of the major components of forest aerosols. Terpenes are especially common in evergreen trees, and have been proven to reduce inflammation, allergic reactions, and even certain cancers.
- In Japan, scientists found that spending 20+ minutes in forest environments promotes lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater “rest and digest” activity in the body, and lower “fight or flight” activity.
If you’d like to try forest bathing, you don’t need access to a major national park to reap the benefits. (Though if you’d like to visit one of the 155 forests in America’s national parks registry, here’s a list to get you started!)
Instead, you can forest bathe on your local hiking trail, state wildlife preserve, city park, or even some backyards. The key is to reach a place where when you look up, your eye line is surrounded by trees instead of buildings. (No, it doesn’t matter what kind of trees they are. Yes, winter trees without any leaves on them still count as part of a forest bathing experience—and also allow you to experiment with black and white photography, especially when the branches cast shadows in the snow.)
Forest bathing is a great (and free) example of using the nature surrounding us to boost our own growth and well-being. But forest bathing only works if it goes both ways, which means while the forest honors our bodies and minds, we need to honor the forest and keep it safe.
While forest bathing, always stay on the established path to minimize disruption to animals, fungi, and plants. Always give animals the right of way and never approach them unless they are severely injured. Keep a substantial distance from nests and dens, and try not to swat bugs—remember, you’re visiting their home, not the other way around! Take ALL of your trash out of the forest with you, and challenge yourself to remove a few pieces of stray plastic if you see them on the path. The goal is to leave the forest better than you found it, just like the forest is leaving you happier, less stressed, and (let’s be real) with some very good new selfies.