Forest Bathing: A Walk in the Woods
Forest bathing is a simple nature stroll that can prevent stress and restore your sanity.
Mother Nature knows best when it comes to our mental and physical well-being. Get outdoors and take a walk.
Have you ever wandered among the stands of giant bamboo at Leu Gardens or taken the boardwalk path at the Disney Wilderness Preserve and felt totally blissed out?
Turns out, there’s science behind that feeling of utter relaxation. A study involving field experiments in 24 forests across Japan showed that when people walked through a forested area, their cortisol levels dropped 16 percent more than when they walked in a cityscape. Plus, after 15 minutes, their blood pressure levels lowered, too.
In fact, there’s a whole movement behind this called shinrin-yoku (aka forest bathing). It’s not what it sounds like; it does not involve stripping down and scrubbing off in a lake. It’s more of a mindful walk, a mobile meditation. The practice, used by the Japanese for decades, means “taking in the forest atmosphere” and was created to combat stress.
“Walking, especially walking in nature, leads to better heart, bone, lung and muscle health,” says Jill Hamilton Buss, a licensed mental health counselor and executive director of Healthy Central Florida, founded by Florida Hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation. “It improves your mood and even boosts creative thinking.”
“It grounds participants in the moment, allowing them to explore with their senses and quiet their minds,” adds Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku LA. “The impact on their mental health is very noticeable.”
So how exactly do you go about it? Page says he certifies guides around the world, and going with a knowledgeable expert is one option. You can, of course, go on your own. The keys are focusing on deep breathing, sitting down occasionally and using all of your senses.
Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like hiking? Page points out the differences: “A hike is generally oriented as a journey from point A to point B, whereas forest bathing is not about reaching a physical destination. The destination is more like a mental space of relaxation and awareness.”
Phytoncydes, organic compounds emitted from plants, play a big role. In the 1980s, around the time that forest bathing starting taking shape in Japan, Tokyo-based researcher Qing Li, MD, PhD, began investigating the effects of forest medicine.
Li found that when people stand in a forested area, they absorb phytoncydes, which trigger the production of cancer-fighting white blood cells. Likewise, another study showed women who spent up to four hours in a forest on two consecutive days boosted their white blood cell counts by as much as 40 percent.
It’s beneficial for both adults and children. “I grew up as a free-range kid, playing in the woods, building forts and exploring my rural neighborhood,” recalls Jill Hamilton Buss. “Sadly, today kids rarely truly experience nature. When they do, however, it can be a powerful therapy for treating things like attention-deficit disorders.”
The good news is even if you don’t have the energy to traipse down a trail, studies show that just looking at greenery can give your body a powerful boost. Either way, your brain will thank you.
Not sure where to start your forest bathing experience? There are loads of nature trails in the Central Florida area. For a selection, check out floridahikes.com/orlando