Trend Alert: The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

I used to live in Hawaii, on the island of Maui.  At least once a month, I would drive a few hours on the winding road around the island and spend a day or two hiking and camping in the rain forest.  I would follow a trail, or make my own, weaving through bamboo forests littered with guava fruit and fragrant awapuhi flowers.  Eventually, I would find a hidden waterfall where I would swim gleefully before making my way back through the forest.  I would come away from these excursions feeling completely revived and refreshed, with a new perspective on life and a deep connection to the planet.

“Shinrin-yoku” is a Japanese term that translates as “forest bathing” and describes immersing oneself in a forest environment in order to experience the healing effects of Mother Nature at her best.  According to Wikipedia, the concept of forest bathing as an important component of a healthy lifestyle was first introduced in 1982 by the “Forest Agency of Japan.”  But what started as a good marketing campaign to induce tourism to Japan’s natural parks, has actually become a widely embraced wellness strategy in Japan, and one that is getting greater attention by researchers.

“There’s magic in the air,” is one way you could describe the believed benefits of forest bathing, since it is believed that the trees themselves emit natural aromatherapeutic benefits from the essential oils in the woods that are inhaled over an extended period (“Phytoncides” according to one New York Times article.)

One research article cites a study done in the Sierra Nevada of California that discovered over 120 different chemical compounds in Forest air, only 70 of which could be identified.  They cautioned that “when we lose our forests, we don’t know what we are losing.”

Another group of researchers say health benefits from the natural environment are to be expected considering that the industrial revolution and subsequent urbanization represents only a blip in the vast span of man’s history on Earth.  We have lived in nature for 99.99% of the past 5 million years, so it is only natural that “all human physiological functions have evolved in and adapted to the natural environment.”

In their study, students who were asked to spend some time wandering around the forest and then sitting and watching the landscape felt calmer and showed physiological indicators (salivary cortisol, prefrontal hemoglobin) of lower stress levels, than students who did the same in an urban environment.

Other studies (here, here, and here and here) show that forest environments promote lower cortisol concentrations, lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, better immune system functioning and greater parasympathetic nerve activity.  Not bad for a walk in the woods.

These are important findings considering that urbanization is one of the biggest trends facing the planet today, particularly with the development of emerging markets such as India and China. Some estimate that China’s urban population will swell to 1 billion people in the next two decades with over 200 cities with 1,000,000+ inhabitants.

Along with this trend towards urbanization, I expect to see a trend towards innovation around bringing plant life into urban environments through parks, nature preserves, rooftop gardens or other urban gardens, and vertical gardens or plant walls (like we are now featuring in select Westin Hotels.)  We also may see more community involvement in protecting green spaces, such as GreenThumb in New York, which claims to be “the largest community gardening program in the nation.”

In spite of my adventures in the rainforests of Hawaii, I had never heard of the term “forest bathing” before stumbling on the research mentioned above.  But now that I’ve learned about it, I plan to use it and promote it.  This concept goes beyond recognizing the health and oxygenating benefits of plant life.  “Forest bathing” implies a need for total immersion in nature and a complete escape from an urban environment, at least from time to time. 

Unlike my life in Maui, here in New York it is not likely that I will find a tropical rainforest replete with hidden waterfalls in my backyard.  But Sterling Forest is not too far away . . . and I could use a forest bath.

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17 Responses to Trend Alert: The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

  1. Kathryn Stolle December 13, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    Great post, Jeremy – you’ve got to admire the Japanese and their love of water in nature! BTW, another historical tidbit: Hydropathy started with a Silesian farmer by the name of Vincenz Priessnitz who started the water cure at a treatment centre he opened in the middle of a forest near Grafenburg, Silesia in 1826. He saw between 1,500 and 1,700 persons from all walks of life annually and his message spread round the world, influencing the acceptance of water as a curative agent in many different cultures.

    This also made me think of the trend here in Canada – Nordic Spas or as the Quebecers call them spas nordique – first set in wooded or forest environments, but gaining traction as a concept applicable to other settings as well.

    Have a look at “The Dirt on Clean – An Unsanitized History” by Katherine Ashenburg for an unbelievably fascinating look at water, bathing and cleanliness, covered from the Romans and Greeks to the present day primarily in Europe and North America. So much well-researched historical information presented in an imminently readable way. You’d love it!

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar December 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    LOVE this article, Jeremy! I get nature cravings if I skip a few weeks in a row not going out in a woodsy area – much like a chocolate craving, but about going outdoors and breathing the fresh air! And nothing is as relaxing and invigorating as Mother Nature, I agree.

    It goes to say that even with all our technological advances, we’re still very much creatures of nature, and the closer we are to our roots, the better off we’ll be. We get that same message when we look at our sleep, food and exercise habits, too – following the circadian rhythm of the sun makes it easier it is to fall asleep and awake (as compared to other types of schedules); the more natural the food, the healthier; the more we train outdoors, the higher the benefits, etc.

    MarieJ

  3. Sara Tekula December 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    Great post, Jeremy! And aloha from Maui, a place that I credit with a huge deepening of my connection to the outdoors, and the inspiration for the Plant a Wish project. We were lucky to interview many of the researchers who conducted the studies you cite in this blog post while on the Plant a Wish 50-state tree planting tour. So important for us all to remember that humans (just like any living thing on the planet) have had a “natural habitat” for thousands of years – and only very recently has it included air conditioning and electricity! Everything is so interconnected, we’d be silly (and remiss) to try and separate from nature for very long. 🙂

  4. Kathryn Stolle December 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Whoops! Re-read your post and realized that I had completely missed the point – got so stuck on the concept of bathing that I could only think water, not forest air. The two are so interconnected that I hope you and your readers will forgive my faux pas! That’s what happens when we literally “jump to conclusions!”

    Having said that, the post really is a good one and that makes twice today that you’ve taken me in different and very welcome directions. Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks??!!

  5. johanna December 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    Nice post. I especially liked the revelation there are “over 120 different chemical compounds in Forest air, only 70 of which could be identified…“when we lose our forests, we don’t know what we are losing.”

    I’m have to be honest though. My first reaction was to get sick to my stomach. Why? Because we’re in the midst of a complete ecological catastrophe and the denial about this is astounding. Only action on a massive scale will reverse this and it’s unlikely this is going to happen.
    While I whole heartedly agree that forest bathing is good for the soul I don’t know many who are bold enough to feel the die-off.

    In college I painted nude figures in nature to heal my wounded psyche. People seemed to like to strip it all off and step into the wild so I could photograph them for a painting. What they liked was less the being photographed part and more that there is something innocent and refreshing about the act of being nude in nature. I didn’t want to record any poses. I just wanted the natural motion of nude humans ‘being’ in nature. Walking. Jumping. Whatever they wanted to do. Yes, it was indeed like taking a bath. And painting a nude in nature was almost like a repeat.

    I then realized there was something inherently dishonest about it. That taking your clothes off in nature wasn’t very natural, really. And that nature was suffering, really. This bothered me. So I switched my activity to saving the last ancient redwoods in California.

    “There are times the lies get to me, times I weary of battering myself against the obstacles of denial, hatred, fear-induced stupidity, and greed, times I want to curl up and fall into the problem, let it sweep me away as it so obviously sweeps away so many others. I remember a spring day a few years ago, a spring day much like this one, only a little more sun, and warmer. I sat on this same couch and looked out this same window at the same ponderosa pine.
    I was frightened, and lonely. Frightened of a future that looks dark, and darker with each passing species, and lonely because for every person actively trying to shut down the timber industry, stop abuse, or otherwise bring about a sustainable and sane way of living, there are thousands who are helping along this not-so-slow train to oblivion. I began to cry.
    The tears stopped soon enough. I realized we are not so outnumbered. We are not outnumbered at all. I looked closely, and saw one blade of wild grass, and another. I saw the sun reflecting bright off the needles of pine trees, and I heard the hum of flies. I saw ants walking single file through the dust, and a spider crawling toward the corner of the ceiling. I knew in that moment, as I’ve known ever since, that it is no longer possible to be lonely, that every creature on earth is pulling in the direction of life–every grasshopper, every struggling salmon, every unhatched chick, every cell of every blue whale–and it is only our own fear that sets us apart. All humans, too, are struggling to be sane, struggling to live in harmony with our surroundings, but it’s really hard to let go. And so we lie, destroy, rape, murder, experiment, and extirpate, all the control this wildly uncontrollable symphony, and failing that, to destroy it.”
    ― Derrick Jensen

  6. Stacy Conlon aka The Zen Girl December 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    What a fantastic article, Jeremy. I grew up in a remote area deep in the redwood forest in the California Santa Cruz mountains. My Dad put a pair of rabbit ears on the roof of our house that barely managed to snag two fuzzy TV channels (one of which was PBS so I could watch Sesame Street). So, as a child I spent most frolicking outdoors with my little brother, making up games and stories among those magical trees. It was a rather calm, relaxing and quiet lifestyle. And your article illustrates I may have the forest to thank for that!

    Now I live in a big city – what a juxtaposition. However, one of the things I love about San Francisco is the plethora of green urban initiatives, one of which is known as “Urban Nature.” The city fosters public awareness of the crucial importance of urban nature by creating programs like community gardens, farmers’ markets in low-income communities, re-landscaping projects, and park and recreational opportunities in densely populated areas of the city.

    San Francisco is 7 miles long x 7 miles wide. Our entire urban forest (including backyards, parks, and street trees) is a mosaic of about 668,000 trees providing 12 percent canopy coverage. These trees remove approximately 287 tons of air pollutants each year valued at $1.4 million and 5,100 tons of carbon dioxide each year valued at $94,000 annually. (Source: http://www.sfenvironment.org). Pretty amazing, really.

    Thanks for making us aware of the benefits of a Forest Bath. I’ll be thinking about this next time I venture over to Golden Gate Park!

  7. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    Thanks Kathryn, your comment on the other kind of bathing was fascinating anyway!

  8. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    MarieJ, You are so right about staying close to our roots. I’m sure you have noticed a trend towards new diets and exercise programs such as “paleo” and “crossfit” that take us back to fueling and moving our bodies more like our ancestors used to. It is hard for technology to catch up with millions of years of evolution.

  9. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Aloha Sara, Plant-a-wish sounds great. Thanks for reading and connecting and spreading some green love around the world!

  10. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    Hi Johanna, thank you for sharing that beautiful quote. I know what you mean about feeling sick to your stomach. I feel that way sometimes too. It was just reported that we have identified a planet that apears to be similar to Earth . . . maybe that will be our only hope since we have already been so thoughtless with the planet we have now. We are like the proverbial frog in the hot water who doesn’t know to react because the changes happen so gradually. Thanks for sharing your story.

  11. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    Hi Stacy, I feel the same way about Central Park in New York (which is not quite as lush.) This is where the “trend” part comes in. Those spaces will become more and more important to us as our urban sprawl continues. San Francisco is a great city. Maybe this is one of the reasons!

  12. Kate Riley December 21, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    Hi, Jeremy,
    Have you read any of the books by Diana Beresford-Kroeger? She writes from the soul of trees….http://www.theecologist.org/how_to_make_a_difference/climate_change_and_energy/841418/diana_beresfordkroeger_the_woman_who_speaks_for_the_trees.html

    Take care..

  13. Jeremy McCarthy December 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

    Hi Kate, I have not read her book (thanks for the recommendation!) I never got past Dr. Seuss’ “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees!”

  14. Sara Firman January 11, 2012 at 3:53 am #

    As a interesting follow-up to forest bathing, a recent article in the New York Sunday Review –

    Seeing the Building for the Trees ( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/seeing-the-building-for-the-trees.html?_r=1 )

    – explores how ‘a revolution in cognitive neuroscience’ is revealing ‘that thought is less transparent to the thinker than it appears and that the mind is less rational than we believe and more associative than we know.’ Didn’t we already know this? 😉

    The article goes on to describe how ‘trees as embodied metaphors’ are being used in some modern architectural projects to create a built environment that is ‘grounded in the way people actually experience the world around them.’

    It remains to be seen whether this will bring us back into a healthy participatory relationship with the natural world of which we are an interdependent part. Or conversely provide yet more ways to substitute for it, thereby increasing our separation.

    I for one am hoping that chemists are not working on ways to bottle those ‘phytoncides’ as handy room sprays, so that along with piped bird song and the sound of wind in the trees one could have the experience of forest bathing without bugs or wild weather.

    I am lucky to live right in the middle of an oak-hickory forest in the Missouri Ozarks. It is not always comfortable but I feel more in touch with the more-than-human world here. I also bear witness to the ways in which forests – if they are to thrive also – need our care.

  15. Acai July 30, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    Nice article.Water got from the forest are more pure and has many medical advantages. The water flowing through all the herbs and tress carries the goodness of the trees and herbs along with it. I too have enjoyed bathing with mother nature.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Conscious Resonance » The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing - December 14, 2011

    […] (Psychology of WellBeing) I used to live in Hawaii, on the island of Maui.  At least once a month, I would drive a few hours on the winding road around the island and spend a day or two hiking and camping in the rain forest.  I would follow a trail, or make my own, weaving through bamboo forests littered with guava fruit and fragrant awapuhi flowers.  Eventually, I would find a hidden waterfall where I would swim gleefully before making my way back through the forest.  I would come away from these excursions feeling completely revived and refreshed, with a new perspective on life and a deep connection to the planet. […]

  2. Have you been forest bathing? | Growth Rings - December 29, 2011

    […] finding reveals the health benefits of immersing yourself in a forest setting. Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a Japanese term for the practice of being restored by a forest. Apparently the trees in a […]

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