Forest Bathing: Is it just hugging trees?

I first stumbled upon forest bathing during a particularly stressful time. I was initially skeptical, but as I tried to get out into nature more often, I felt it was making a difference. The gentle rustling of leaves, the earthy scent of the soil, and the soft chirping of birds. Something that we can all take for granted but is so important for our mental health and trying to bring more zen to our lives.

And you know what? There’s some serious science backing up the incredible benefits of forest bathing. Imagine giving your immune system a leg up, slashing stress levels, and clearing the fog from your brain – all with one simple move. So, are you ready to dive in and discover the healing power of forest bathing for yourself?

Forest bathing amongst the trees

What Is Forest Bathing and How Does It Work?

Forest bathing became popular seemingly overnight. In a single afternoon, I saw it popping up on many spa menus around the country, viral videos on my Facebook feed, and wellness articles. The Washington Post called it the U.S.’s “latest fitness trend,” comparing it to how yoga swept east across the country after making landfall in California 30 years ago; the Huffington Post identified it as “a true antidote to stresses that ail us.” I had questions: What exactly is forest bathing? How does it work? And could it really be as simple as it sounds – hanging out in the forest to reap health benefits? Turns out, forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku,” has been a thing in Japan since the 1980s. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term and promoted it to encourage urbanites to get out and appreciate nature. But the practice goes back way further than that. Many cultures have long recognized the importance of the natural world to human health.

The Science Behind Forest Bathing

This Japanese practice is a relaxation process known in Japan as shinrin yoku. The simple method of being calm and quiet amongst the trees, observing nature around you whilst breathing deeply, can help both adults and children de-stress and boost health and well-being in a natural way. Studies have shown that spending time in the forest can lower stress, anxiety, and anger while improving sleep and immune system function. 

One study even found that a weekend in the woods boosted participants’ immune systems by 40%. Here’s how forest bathing works: With a guide or on your own, you walk slowly—very, very slowly—through the woods, tuning into multiple senses, feeling the shifting terrain under your feet, noticing the smell of your environment or of a single leaf that catches the eye. You are encouraged to touch newly sprouted buds that feel coated in glue gently. Paper-like leaves that are on the verge of death—squeeze too hard and crumble into dust—to zero in on that difference, taking the time to see the details of a forest from multiple angles. It is, in a way, mobile meditation: It’s not strenuous like a hike.

Finding a Certified Forest Therapy Guide

My forest bathing guide for the day is Nina Smiley, PhD, director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian castle resort surrounded by 40,000 acres of woodlands, two hours north of New York City. She speaks in the soothing just-above-a-whisper voice you might expect from someone with that title. In describing what she teaches, she uses “forest bathing” and “mindfulness in nature” interchangeably, emphasizing the need to be in the moment and detached from the worries of your every day or the notifications waiting on your cell phone. (She asked me to put away any recorders or cell phones during the experience for that very reason.)

The Top Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

It turns out that walking and relaxing in this type of immersive experience amongst the trees may offer various health benefits. That’s why forest bathing is also called forest therapy. One of the most well-researched benefits of shinrin-yoku is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. Studies have found that participants report feeling less stressed, anxious, angry, and depressed after a walk in the forest. Breathing in the fresh air, taking in the natural surroundings, and unplugging technology all help you relax and destress. Even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact.

Improving Cardiovascular Health

Forest bathing has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke. All that fresh air is good for your heart. Spending time in nature also encourages physical activity, another important factor in maintaining a healthy heart. Just be sure to go at your own pace and not overdo it. Trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides, which have been shown to boost the immune system. One study found that a weekend in the woods increased the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells by 40%. So breathe deep and take in all those good tree vibes. Your immune system will thank you.

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Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

Enhancing Mental Clarity and Focus

If you’re feeling mentally fatigued, a dose of nature might be just what you need. Studies have shown that spending time in green spaces can improve attention span and memory. The next time you’re struggling to focus, try taking a break for a quick walk in the park. You may feel refreshed and ready to tackle that project with renewed clarity.

Promoting Better Sleep

Having trouble sleeping? Forest therapy can help with that, too. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration. Combining physical activity, reduced stress, and exposure to natural light all work together to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. So if you’re struggling with insomnia, a forest bath might be worth a try.

How to Incorporate Forest Bathing Into Your Life

You don’t need to live near a forest or have much time to reap the benefits of shinrin-yoku. Even a short walk in a nearby park or green space can do wonders for your health and wellbeing. First, find a spot. This can be a wooded area in your neighborhood, a nearby park, or even your own backyard. The key is to find a place where you can connect with nature and feel removed from the busyness of daily life. If you live in a city, look for parks, botanical gardens, or nature preserves. Many cities also have “urban forests” or greenways that provide a dose of nature amidst the concrete jungle.

Making Time for Regular Forest Bathing

Set aside some time, even if it’s just 20-30 minutes, to immerse yourself in nature. Think of it as a “green prescription” for your health. Try to forest bathe at least once a week, or more if possible. Consistency is key to reaping the full benefits. Make it a regular self-care routine, like exercise or meditation. Once you’ve found your spot, it’s time to engage your senses. Take a few deep breaths and notice the smell of the trees and earth around you. Listen to the sound of birds chirping or leaves rustling in the breeze. Feel the texture of the ground beneath your feet and the tree bark. Notice the different shades of green in the leaves and how the light filters through the branches. Taste the freshness of the air on your tongue.

Combining Forest Bathing With Other Mindfulness Practices

Forest bathing pairs well with other mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Try incorporating a few minutes of meditation or gentle stretching into your forest bathing routine. You can also use your time in nature to reflect and journal. Bring a notebook and pen and jot down any thoughts, feelings, or insights that arise during your forest bath. Remember, the key is to be present and mindful, not to achieve any particular goal or outcome. Let go of expectations and simply allow yourself to be in the moment, soaking up the healing power of nature.

Key Thought: 

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, isn’t just a trend; it’s a practice with deep roots and science-backed benefits. It helps lower stress, boost immunity, and improve sleep and mental clarity—all by being in nature. You don’t need much to start: find a spot of greenery, slow down, breathe deeply, and let nature do its work.

The Differences Between Forest Bathing and a Regular Walk in Nature

So, what exactly sets forest bathing apart from your typical stroll in the park or hike through the woods? It’s all about the intention. When forest bathing, you’re not just walking aimlessly or trying to get from point A to point B. You’re fully present, engaging all your senses and allowing yourself to soak in the healing atmosphere of the forest. The key difference is mindfulness. In forest bathing, you’re not just physically present in nature – you’re mentally and emotionally tuned in, too. You’re paying attention to the details: the play of light through the leaves, the fresh scent of pine, and the rough texture of bark against your palm. It’s a full sensory immersion. This intentional focus helps quiet the mind and creates a meditative state. You’re not worrying about your to-do list or checking your phone. You’re just being and letting nature work its magic.

Pace and Duration

Another distinction is the pace. A forest bathing walk is slow and leisurely, covering maybe a quarter mile in a few hours. There’s no rush, no destination. The goal is to linger and savor, not to break a sweat. This relaxed pace allows for a deeper connection. You have time to notice the small wonders that are often overlooked when we’re hustling through our everyday lives. A guided forest bathing session typically lasts 2-4 hours, much longer than the average walk in the woods. This extended time in nature amplifies the restorative effects. While you can certainly practice forest bathing independently, there’s something special about being led by a trained guide. They help you tune in and engage in ways you might not think to do alone. Guides may invite you to interact with nature creatively – by crafting a piece of art from fallen leaves or sharing a “gift” with a tree that is called to you. These playful activities get you out of your head and into your body and senses. They also hold space for silent reflection, gently bringing you back when the mind inevitably wanders. This support allows you to drop into a deeper state of presence and connection.

Health Outcomes

The cumulative effect of all these differences – the mindfulness, the slow pace, the extended time, the sensory engagement – is a deeper healing experience than a typical walk provides. Studies have shown that forest bathing can significantly lower stress, improve mood and sleep, boost immune function, and enhance creativity and mental clarity. While any time in nature is beneficial, the research suggests forest bathing maximizes those benefits. It’s the difference between a quick dip and a long soak – both feel good, but the full immersion transforms you more thoroughly. So the next time you feel the call of the wild, consider trading your power walk for a deliberately slow wander. Breathe deep, engage your senses, and let the forest reveal its healing magic. That’s the essence of forest bathing.

The Growing Popularity and Research on Forest Bathing

Forest bathing has taken the wellness world by storm in recent years. What began as a Japanese practice in the 1980s has now spread to every corner of the globe, attracting everyone from urban dwellers seeking solace to scientists eager to quantify its impressive health benefits.

The Spread of Forest Bathing Globally

The term “shinrin-yoku,” which translates to “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere,” was coined in Japan in 1982. However, the concept quickly caught on and spread beyond Japan’s borders. Today, you can find certified Forest Therapy guides and dedicated forest bathing programs from the U.S. to the U.K., Canada to Costa Rica. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy has trained over 600 guides in 40 countries. This rapid global adoption speaks to the universal human need to reconnect with nature. In our hyper-connected, always-on world, more and more people are seeking out the simplicity and solace of the forest.

Recent Studies and Findings

As forest bathing has grown in popularity, so has the scientific interest in its effects. Researchers worldwide are now studying this practice’s physiological and psychological impacts. The findings are compelling. Multiple studies have shown that forest bathing can:

  • Lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels
  • Improve immune function
  • Reduce blood pressure and heart rate
  • Boost mood and cognitive performance
  • Enhance creativity and problem-solving

One notable study found that a single forest bathing session increased the number and activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of immune cell that fights cancer and infection. The effects lasted for a full week after the forest exposure. These studies provide the science to back up what forest bathers have long known intuitively – that immersing ourselves in nature is a potent medicine for both body and mind. Given the impressive research findings, many see forest bathing as a promising form of preventative healthcare.

If a few hours in the forest can measurably improve immune function and reduce stress, could regular forest bathing help keep us well? Some forward-thinking doctors and health systems are beginning to prescribe nature as part of a healthy lifestyle. Park Rx America, for example, is a non-profit encouraging healthcare providers to prescribe time in nature to their patients.

We hope that by making forest bathing and other nature-based therapies a regular part of our healthcare routines, we can boost our overall wellness and resilience. The forest may be our best medicine in a world of rising chronic stress and illness.

Accessibility and Public Health Implications

Of course, for forest bathing to truly have a public health impact, it must be accessible to all. And this is where the challenge lies. Not everyone lives near a lush forest or has the means to travel to one regularly.

This is especially true for lower-income and urban populations, who often have the least access to green spaces. But the good news is that forest bathing, in its essence, can be adapted to whatever nature is available. A city park, a botanical garden, or even a tree-lined street can provide the benefits if approached with the right mindset. The key is making these spaces inviting, safe, and accessible. This may involve things like:

  • Improving park safety and maintenance
  • Providing free or low-cost guided forest bathing programs
  • Incorporating green spaces into urban planning and development
  • Educating the public about the health benefits of nature’s connection

By making forest bathing and other forms of nature therapy more available and inclusive, we have the potential to impact public health in a meaningful way. The forest is a source of wellness that belongs to all of us. As the science and practice of forest bathing continue to grow and spread, more and more people are discovering the healing power right in their own backyards. So whether you’re lucky enough to have a wild forest at your doorstep or find your slice of nature in the midst of the city bustle, know that the benefits are yours for the taking. The trees are waiting to welcome you into their healing embrace.

Key Thought: 

Forest bathing is more than just a walk in the woods; it’s about being fully present and engaging your senses for deep healing. Slowly notice nature’s details, and let its magic work wonders on your stress levels, mood, immune function, and creativity.


Forest bathing is more than just a walk in the woods – a journey of self-discovery and healing. By immersing yourself in nature, you tap into a profound sense of peace and connection – which can be life-changing.

Imagine walking into the woods not just as a hiker but as someone on a quest—to beat stress, ignite their creative side, or simply fall back in love with nature. That’s what forest bathing offers: an accessible journey toward feeling great again that everyone can participate in. So why not give it a try?

Find a nearby forest or park, leave your phone and worries behind, and let the trees’ magic work wonders on you. Trust me, your mind, body, and soul will thank you. Enjoy soaking up the vibes in those woods, buddy!

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