How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

When the U.S. media began report­ing on the phe­nom­e­non of “for­est bathing” as a ther­a­py for men­tal and phys­i­cal health, the online commentariat—as it will—mocked the con­cept relent­less­ly as yet anoth­er pre­ten­tious, bour­geois repack­ag­ing of some­thing thor­ough­ly mun­dane. Didn’t we just used to call it “going out­side”?

Well, yes, if all “for­est bathing” means is “going out­side,” then it does sound like a grandiose and unnec­es­sary phrase. The term, how­ev­er, is not an Amer­i­can mar­ket­ing inven­tion but a trans­la­tion of the Japan­ese shin­rin-yoku. “Coined by the Japan­ese Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries in 1982,” writes Meeri Kim at The Wash­ing­ton Post, “the word lit­er­al­ly trans­lates to ‘tak­ing in the for­est atmos­phere’ or ‘for­est bathing’ and refers to the process of soak­ing up the sights, smells and sounds of a nat­ur­al set­ting to pro­mote phys­i­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal health.”

So what? We already have the exam­ples of thou­sands years of Bud­dhist monks (and Thich Nat Hanh), of Hen­ry David Thore­au, and the saints of the Sier­ra Club. But the old­est and most use­ful ideas and prac­tices can get care­less­ly dis­card­ed in the fran­tic pur­suit of inno­va­tion at all costs. The push­ing of hi-tech out­door gear, wear­able activ­i­ty track­ers, and health apps that ask us to log every move­ment can make going out­side feel like a daunt­ing, expen­sive chore or a com­pet­i­tive event.

For­est bathing involves none of those things. “Just be with the trees,” as Ephrat Livni describes the prac­tice, “no hik­ing, no count­ing steps on a Fit­bit. You can sit or mean­der, but the point is to relax rather than accom­plish any­thing.” You don’t have to hug the trees if you don’t want to, but at least sit under one for a spell. Even if you don’t attain enlight­en­ment, you very well may reduce stress and boost immune func­tion, accord­ing to sev­er­al Japan­ese stud­ies con­duct­ed between 2004 and 2012.

The Japan­ese gov­ern­ment spent around four mil­lion dol­lars on stud­ies con­duct­ed with hun­dreds of peo­ple “bathing” on 48 des­ig­nat­ed ther­a­py trails. In his work, Qing Li, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Nip­pon Med­ical School in Tokyo, found “sig­nif­i­cant increas­es in NK [nat­ur­al killer] cell activ­i­ty in the week after a for­est vis­it… pos­i­tive effects last­ed a month fol­low­ing each week­end in the woods.” Nat­ur­al killer cells fight virus­es and can­cers, and are appar­ent­ly stim­u­lat­ed by the oils that trees them­selves secrete to ward off germs and pests. See the pro­fes­sor explain in the video above (he trans­lates shin­rin-yoku as tak­ing a “for­est show­er,” and also claims to have bot­tled some of the effects).

Addi­tion­al­ly, exper­i­ments con­duct­ed by Japan’s Chi­ba Uni­ver­si­ty found that for­est bathing low­ered heart rate and blood pres­sure and brought down lev­els of cor­ti­sol, the stress hor­mone that can wreak hav­oc on every sys­tem when large amounts cir­cu­late through the body. Then there are the less tan­gi­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of tak­ing in the trees. Sub­jects in one study “showed sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced hos­til­i­ty and depres­sion scores” after a walk in the woods. These find­ings under­score that spend­ing time in the for­est is a med­ical inter­ven­tion as well as an aes­thet­ic and spir­i­tu­al one, some­thing sci­en­tists have long observed but haven’t been able to quan­ti­fy.

In their review of a book called Your Brain on Nature, Moth­er Earth News quotes Franklin Hough, first chief of the U.S. Divi­sion of Forestry, who remarked in a 19th cen­tu­ry med­ical jour­nal that forests have “a cheer­ful and tran­quil­iz­ing influ­ence which they exert upon the mind, more espe­cial­ly when worn down by men­tal labor.” Hough’s hypoth­e­sis has been con­firmed, and despite what might sound to Eng­lish speak­ers like a slight­ly ridicu­lous name, for­est bathing is seri­ous ther­a­py, espe­cial­ly for the ever-increas­ing num­ber of urban­ites and those who spend their days in strip malls, office com­plex­es, and oth­er over­built envi­ron­ments.

What is a guid­ed for­est bathing expe­ri­ence like? You can lis­ten to NPR’s Ali­son Aubrey describe one above. She quotes Amos Clif­ford, founder of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Nature & For­est Ther­a­py, the cer­ti­fy­ing orga­ni­za­tion, as say­ing that a guide “helps you be here, not there,” sort of like a med­i­ta­tion instruc­tor. Clif­ford has been push­ing health care providers to “incor­po­rate for­est ther­a­py as a stress-reduc­tion strat­e­gy” in the U.S., and there’s no ques­tion that more stress reduc­tion tools are sore­ly need­ed.

But, you may won­der, do you have to call it “for­est bathing,” or pay for a cer­ti­fied guide, join a group, and buy some fan­cy out­er­wear to get the ben­e­fits hang­ing out with trees? I say, con­sid­er the words of John Muir, the inde­fati­ga­ble 19th nat­u­ral­ist, “father of the Nation­al Park Sys­tem,” and found­ing saint of the Sier­ra Club: In the eter­nal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go qui­et­ly, alone; no harm will befall you. The quote may under­es­ti­mate the amount of risk or over­state the ben­e­fits, but you get the idea. Muir was not one to get tan­gled up in seman­tics or over­ly detailed analy­sis. Nonethe­less, his work inspired Amer­i­cans to step in and pre­serve so much of the coun­try’s for­est in the 19th and 20th cen­turies. Maybe the pre­ven­ta­tive med­i­cine of “for­est bathing” can help do the same in the 21st.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Walk­ing Fos­ters Cre­ativ­i­ty: Stan­ford Researchers Con­firm What Philoso­phers and Writ­ers Have Always Known

How Mind­ful­ness Makes Us Hap­pi­er & Bet­ter Able to Meet Life’s Chal­lenges: Two Ani­mat­ed Primers Explain

This Is Your Brain on Exer­cise: Why Phys­i­cal Exer­cise (Not Men­tal Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.