WTF Are Forest Baths and Why Are They Everywhere Right Now?
Next time you’re feeling stressed, give forest bathing a try—no loofah required.
Along a serene woodland path flanked by aging trees, the soundtrack of chirping birds and rustling leaves accompanies the quiet crunch of leaves and sticks beneath your walking shoes. Hiking? Not quite. This is something new altogether—it’s a forest bath.
Nope, that wasn’t a typo. Forest baths are an actual thing, and they just might be the key to unlocking a ton of physical and mental health benefits. Here’s what to know about the Japanese practice of forest bathing and how to add it into your own life.
What Is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing, or nature therapy, is a Japanese practice that translates loosely as “taking in the forest through your senses.” The phrase, first coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, was an attempt to encourage people to spend time in nature for stress relief.
A low-impact alternative to going on a strenuous hike or a trail run, forest bathing is all about disconnecting from technology and absorbing the natural world around you through your senses. Forest bathers are encouraged to take in the smallest details of the landscape around them through sight, smell and sound.
While the practice is Japanese in origin, the idea of nature as medicine has caught on around the world. In fact, American doctors have started prescribing time in parks and preserves to their patients in an effort to capture the benefits of the great outdoors. And researchers in the United Kingdom are exploring ways the body and brain get a boost from a connection to nature.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
As for what the specific benefits might be, one study found that forest environments promote slower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, and reduced cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone) compared to city environments. Forest bathing has also been found to enhance the activity of natural killer cells, which help your body fight off infections and cancer. And you know that delicious pine scent that floats through the air when you enter a forest? It’s been connected to lower inflammation in the body and greater cognitive protection for your brain.
If you’re still not a believer, yet another study identifies nature as an antidote to “technostress,” reporting that the simple act of being among flora and fauna makes it easier to detach from your devices and give your body the stress-reset it needs. Meanwhile, an analysis in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that forest therapy can improve mood and reduce anxiety. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by a looming deadline or realize that you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, try going for a quick walk—chances are, it’ll help.
DIY Forest Bathing
At a time when people are spending more hours indoors than ever before, the urge to get out in nature is widespread. Outdoor workout classes are one option; forest bathing is another natural way to satisfy that craving. Plus, it’s totally free. It costs nothing to lace up your sneakers and walk out your front door, which makes it an incredibly accessible way to boost your health.
First step: Find a forest, preferably one with walking paths that are not overly crowded. If you’re an urban dweller, all is not lost: Even visiting a city park for just 20 minutes has been reported to improve life satisfaction.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, take a few deep breaths as you deliberately slow your pace. (This is not a race and getting your heart rate up defeats the purpose of forest bathing.) Begin your leisurely stroll, taking special care to notice the sights, sounds and smells as you walk slowly through the forest.
While walking is probably the easiest way to participate in forest bathing, you can also forest bathe by meditating, practicing a gentle yoga flow, journaling or engaging in other thoughtful activities in a natural environment. If it feels weird just walking around, try this mindfulness activity: Name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Repeat this exercise as you continue your forest bath.
The only rule with forest bathing: Don’t bring your electronics. It’s hard—maybe impossible—to be fully immersed in the natural environment when you can feel the vibrations of your phone in your jacket. Leave your tech devices in the car (or fully power it down and stick it deep in your pockets).
Finally, make sure you have the right gear for a forest bath. Pack a lightweight jacket in case the weather turns on you, and remember to wear sunscreen and bug spray. Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated (even if it’s cool outside), and carrying a small bag of trail mix wouldn’t hurt either.