We love being outside. We love learning outside, we love exercising outside, and we love adventures outside.
But did you know that time outside can improve mood, boost energy, and even increase immune function? Shinrin-yoku has been practiced in Japan for centuries. In the West, we call it forest bathing.
Contrary to what the name might imply, forest bathing does not involve swimming. It also doesn’t involve hiking, climbing, running, or jogging. In fact, it doesn’t involve much of anything. Forest bathing is nothing more than a leisurely visit to a forest; simply being in nature.
And the benefits of forest bathing are awesome. Here are a few ways forest bathing helps, PLUS a few tips for getting started!
#1. Forest Bathing Decreases Stress and Anxiety
Sometime called “ecotherapy,” the benefits of forest bathing on mental health are well-documented. This isn’t some mystical practice; it’s backed by science. And as researchers continue to study the effects of forest bathing, they’ve learned that it’s extremely beneficial for improving mental health.
Studies have demonstrated that forest bathing helps to reduce cortisol, which is the hormone that causes stress. It can also help lower blood pressure and heart rate. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 600,000 Americans each year and accounting for about 1 in every 4 deaths. Forest bathing reduces the risk of death from heart disease, as well as reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes.
Forest bathing can also help to combat anxiety and depression, likely through a combination of vitamin D, phytoncides (volatile organic compounds with antibacterial properties) released by trees, social interaction, and movement. These are all mechanisms by which forest bathing helps to improve mental health.
#2. Forest Bathing Increases Energy
In addition to reducing stress, anxiety, and the risk for heart disease, forest bathing comes with another huge benefit: more energy! Studies have shown that people who spend time in green space have more energy throughout the day and get better, more quality sleep at night.
It can help regulate dopamine levels, which will help give you the drive and focus you need to be productive. Plus, there’s a cool synergy where the other benefits of forest bathing work together to boost other benefits.
For example, stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease are all things that can sap your energy. By reducing these ailments, we increase the pro-energy effects of forest bathing. Additionally, vitamin D plays a huge role in boosting energy levels and improving muscle strength.
The important thing to remember is that forest bathing is NOT a rigorous activity. Simply getting outside and into nature is all it takes to start reaping these benefits… and anyone can do it!
#3. Forest Bathing Strengthens the Immune System and Fights Inflammation
The immune system is the body’s natural defense system against germs, bacteria, and disease. A healthy immune system responds to invading organisms by attacking harmful cells and bacteria before they can cause disease. One of the coolest parts of our immune defense are natural killer cells, or NK cells.
These cells are like highly-trained assassins that seek out virally infected cells and cancerous cells and destroy them. What’s really cool is that they don’t need any conditioning to do this. We generally build immunity through exposure to toxins and disease – once our bodies have been exposed, we’re better equipped to handle the toxin in the future.
NK cells are unique in that they can identify diseased cells and destroy them without prior exposure. The more NK cells you have working in your body, the better protected you are from chronic diseases like cancer. Why so much about NK cells?
Because extensive, peer-reviewed research has shown that forest bathing increases the number of NK cells in the body AND their activity level. That means that a bit of leisurely time out in nature can literally help protect you from some of the worst diseases.
And if that wasn’t enough, forest bathing can also help reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a natural stress response to injury, but it’s meant to be temporary. When we have chronic stress from disease, injury, or an unhealthy lifestyle, we experience chronic inflammation. Doctors and scientists agree that chronic inflammation is likely the cause of most chronic disease.
The D-limonene in forest air specifically helps reduce lung inflammation. People with asthma and COPD have shown improvement after forest bathing as oxygen is increased and inflammation is lessened. To lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illness, all you have to do is step outside.
How to Start Forest Bathing
The number one goal of forest bathing is to slow down and immerse yourself in nature. This means that you shouldn’t be participating in strenuous activity or using your devices and gadgets. The idea is to ensure that you are “in the moment” so that you can clear your mind. So, leave your phone and camera at home or in the car and don’t worry about how many calories you’re burning during your time. Just be still and absorb the natural environment around you.
Another tip is to not have a plan. Shinrin is the Japanese word for a leisurely, aimless stroll. So don’t worry about where you’re headed or what you’ll see. Listen to your senses and let your body take you wherever it may. Absorb the forest with your whole body and focus on deep, slow breathing.
When it comes to location, the denser the vegetation, the better. Thick, lush forests are ideal, and many people live within a reasonable distance of some kind of wooded area. But if time is tight or location doesn’t allow for a trip into the forest, remember that time outside in almost any green space will do.
We’ve written about the positive effects of green spaces before, however, not all outdoor spaces are created equal. Finding time to escape urban, developed environments and immerse yourself in green, natural spaces is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to stay happy and healthy.
Remember that the benefits of forest bathing are dose-dependent, which means that the more often you go, the more you’ll experience the positive effects. And you don’t need much time. Even 15 or 20 minutes a few times a day can make a world of difference for your mood, energy, and health. So put down your phone, turn off your computer, and get outside!