by Jennifer Fontaine – According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Americans on average spend over 90 percent of their time indoors. All that time indoors generally means less exercise and more exposure to toxins from synthetic building materials, home furnishings, personal care products, pesticides, household cleaners, and more. Enter forest bathing.
Spending all time indoors also means Americans are spending less than 10 percent of their time outside, missing out on some pretty profound health benefits experienced by spending time in nature. This issue is present worldwide and so much so that in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries came up with the term Shinrin-yoku to encourage citizens to “take in the forest atmosphere.” This practice, also known as “forest bathing,” is now gaining in popularity across the world, including in the United States.
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Forest bathing combines nature with mindfulness, using all five senses to promote mental and body health. As a practice, it’s less about getting in cardio or burning calories as tracked by your fitness app and more about slowing down to appreciate the sights, sounds, scents, and tactile sensations of nature. Similarly to yoga or meditation, those who practice forest bathing get a respite from everyday stress to focus on the outdoors. The extra benefits come from spending time in nature, which provides numerous health benefits.
The Ancient Art of Forest Bathing
The idea behind forest bathing is proven and a guaranteed way to refocus your mind and to get rid of stress. Japan long ago adopted the concept of forest bathing as part of its national health program. In fact, this method has been used to let people unplug from the world long before the existence of smartphones and tablets. The central point is to reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. More than just a breath of fresh air, you take in all of nature around you. It is as simple as it sounds; you go into the woods, breathe deeply, and enjoy the peace.
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Imagine walking down a path, surrounded by trees and a beautiful sky overhead. The subtle sounds of nature surround you and not the congested drone of urban life. Every step you take brings new sounds to life. You start to really look at the trees and are aware of more shades of green than were in your crayon box as a kid. The key is to just wander without a specified path or direction. You just go where nature guides you.
You find a clearing and place a blanket on the ground. Lying face up, you start to take in everything around you; the feeling of the ground against your back, the way the trees sway, how the light changes as it comes through the leaves. In no time at all, you are so involved in your surroundings, any stress you were holding on to has melted away. You naturally begin to breathe deeply and slower and you don’t even feel like your meditating. You are at ease, at peace, and the forest soothes you.
Forest Bathing Improves Mood & Focus
Forest bathing also has mental health implications. Today’s constant exposure to technology and activity means our lives are busier than ever before with less down time. This can be mentally draining, leading to “Directed Attention Fatigue.”
The mindfulness that occurs when observing in the forest brings about improved focus. Researchers have also discovered that forest bathing trips cause significant decreases in anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion, as well as fatigue. In children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), research has shown a reduction in attention fatigue and other symptoms.
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The popularity of forest bathing has increased in such a way that there is now an entire industry promoting its practice. Training sessions for forest bathing instructors are offered across the globe, as well as high-end spas that promote the practices and offer eco-therapy sessions. To be successful at forest bathing, you do not have to participate in any of these programs. Simply spend time outdoors, and center yourself in nature as the purest and easiest way to forest bathe. You don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth; any outdoor setting works, so long as you are removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
How Forest Bathing Helps Reduce Stress
The ongoing stresses of contemporary life often bring a heightened stress response without the release so the body and mind are under constant stress. However, studies tracking those who spent time forest bathing have shown lower cortisol levels, lower pulse rate and blood pressure, as well as a boost in parasympathetic nerve activity. This means that the constant stress response is counteracted.
When stress is allowed to accumulate it becomes more dangerous to your overall mental and physical health.
- Stress has been linked to the development of certain diseases including cancer, lung disease, cirrhosis, and even thoughts of suicide.
- The negative impact on hormones causes you to lose interest in sex and relationships.
- Stress causes people to grind their teeth and when done unconsciously during the night can result in serious gum and teeth problems.
- Stress physically causes damage to your heart muscles by increasing cortisol, the stress hormone. This constricts blood vessels, which impacts blood flow, causing great strain on the heart.
- People tend to eat more when they are stressed, which contributes to weight gain.
- Chronic stress contributes to premature aging, resulting in premature wrinkles and deterioration of vital organs.
- The high demands of stress on the body weakens the immune system, which increases risk for colds, as well as other infections.
Prescription for Forest Bathing
You don’t necessarily need a forest because the method is not centered specifically on trees. Forest bathing can be done at the beach or in a national park. The idea is to get away from urban life and return to nature at its most basic form. Unfortunately, unless we live near a forest, it can be challenging to spend a few days in the forest each month. However, you can derive benefits from spending time around trees or in open space no matter where you happen to be.
- Set aside 2-3 hours weekly to spend time in a forested area or a park with trees.
- Embrace the moment. This isn’t the time to power walk or increase your heart rate.
- Take a slow walk, observing nature around you.
- Stop and smell the roses.
- Take time to explore what interests you.
- Use all of your senses.
- Practice mindfulness. If you find your mind wandering to work or to-do lists, focus on your surroundings, the sounds of the birds or the wind, the scent of the trees.
Centering yourself in nature helps you to regain focus of the most basic and beautiful things in life. We get so caught up in our world that we forget the beauty out there. The documented improvements to health include lower blood pressure, lower blood glucose levels, fewer stress hormones, and better concentration. Nature provides a natural healing environment and the perfect distraction, which is why you need to start bathing outdoors.
Read more about how scientific research shows that regular hiking is good for the body and the brain from our friends at All Things Waterproof.
Jennifer Fontaine is the founder of Outdoor Families Magazine, publisher of MommyHiker.com, a blog to encourage outdoor activities with children, and an activist filmmaker inspiring dynamic change in the world. She lives in Southern California with her family.