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Forest bathing

Topics: Human Wellbeing | 21 comments

Forest bathing

Research about the Japanese practice of forest bathing shows that time spent in nature lowers stress levels – and could even help fight cancer.

It’s widely assumed that escaping the noise and stress of the city to spend some time in nature is good for us. In recent years scientists have been putting this assumption to the test, and evidence is mounting of the positive effects of contact with nature on our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

Some of the most interesting evidence of the health benefits of nature is coming out of Japan, and revolves around the popular practice of ‘Shinrinyoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. The practice was introduced in 1982 in a prescient move by the Forest Agency of Japan to encourage a healthy lifestyle and decrease stress levels. Forest bathing has now become a recognised relaxation and stress management activity in Japan – but studies conducted in the last few years shows forest bathing is also increasing a component of the immune system that fights cancer.

Forest bathing experiments
Qing Li is a senior assistant professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo who is studying forest medicine. He is currently the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, which was established in 2007. Dr Li has conducted a number of experiments to test the effects of forest bathing on our moods, stress levels and immune system.

In one study the Profile of Mood States (POMS) test was used to show that forest bathing trips significantly increased the score of vigour in subjects, and decreased the scores for anxiety, depression and anger – leading to the recommendation that habitual forest bathing may help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases.

Other studies on immune function looked into whether forest bathing increases the activity of people’s natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer. In two studies, small groups of men and women respectively were assessed before and after a two-night/three-day forest bathing trip. During the trips the subjects went on three forest walks and stayed in a hotel in the forest. Blood tests were taken before and after the trip, revealing a significant boost in NK activity in the subjects in both groups. The increase was observed as long as 30 days after the trip. Follow-up studies showed a significant increase in NK activity was also achieved after a day-trip to a forest, with the increase observed for seven days after the trip.

Dr Li attributes the increase in NK activity partly to breathing in air containing phytoncide (wood essential oils) like α-pinene and limonene, which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds emitted from trees to protect them from rotting and insects.

  • Walking in a Japanese cypress forest during forest bathing study.
  • Forest bathing trip.
  • Big cedar forest, Japan.
  • Taking a rest during a forest bathing trip.

Anyone can forest bathe
Japan has many conditions that favour the practice of forest bathing: Forests occupy 67 per cent of the land in Japan and are easily accessible; Japanese tree species including Japanese cypress, Japanese cedar, Japanese beech and Japanese oak are all proven to be effective in raising NK activity; and the Japanese government now officially recognises certain forests by granting the designations of Forest Therapy Base and Forest Therapy Road. However, Dr Li says forest bathing is possible anywhere in the world where there is a patch of decent forest (generally defined as land with a tree canopy cover of more than 10 per cent and area of more than 0.5 ha).

He says while forest bathing it’s not important to do heavy physical exercise, but rather one should ‘enjoy the forest through the five senses: the murmuring of a stream, bird’s singing, green colour, fragrance of the forest, eat some foods from the forest and just touch the trees’.

Dr Li’s tips for forest bathing are:

  • Make a plan based on your daily physical activity and do not get tired during the forest bathing.
  • If you take whole day forest bathing, it is better to stay in forest for about 4 hours and walk about 5 kilometres. If you take a half day forest bathing, it is better to stay in forest for about 2 hours and walk about 2.5 kilometres.
  • If you feel tired, you can take a rest anywhere and anytime you like.
  • If you feel thirsty, you can drink water/tea anywhere and anytime you like.
  • Please find a place in the forest you like. Then, you can sit for a while and read or enjoy the beautiful scenery.
  • If it is possible, it is better to take a hot spring bath (a spa) after the forest bathing.
  • You can select the forest bathing course based on your purpose.
  • If you want to boost your immunity (natural killer activity), a three-day/two-night forest bathing trip would be recommended.
  • If you just want to relax for reducing your stress, a day trip to a forest park near to your home would be recommended.
  • Forest bathing is just a preventive measure for diseases; therefore, if you come down with an illness, I would recommend you to see a doctor - not visit a forest.

Future research
For those of us lacking the time or resources to forest bathe, Dr Li says a two-hour walk in a city park with a good density of trees can significantly boost the score for vigour and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. He has not yet investigated whether walking in a city park can enhance human immunity, but is planning to do so shortly. Dr Li is also researching the effect of forest bathing on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters and says he’s planning to develop forest bathing to be a preventive measure for some diseases such as depression, hypertension and cancers.



  • Elizabeth Alcorn says:

    Fasinating article and really look forward to the additional research on city parks. More forests in urban areas.

  • Tim says:

    A silly little bit of pseudoscientific fluff. I was waiting for the Feng Shui recommendation

    • RJ says:

      The NK cell activity level quantification is certainly scientific, and alpha-pinene and limonene are organic chemicals with known biological effects. I’ve taken a graduate-level university course in immunology and these were discussed. So what’s your complaint specifically, Tim?

    • Mia says:

      you really think that walking outside (which any and every doctor will tell you is good for you and will most likely recommend as being a healthy practice) is psuedoscience?? you think that exposure to nature wouldn’t have a direct positive effect on helping your body build antibodies (you know, the things that help to keep you from getting sick, they kill bad invaders to your body) that develop DUE TO EXPOSURE to things in the environment?? maybe you don’t know what SCIENCE is which is why you’d think this is psuedoscience. to me, and to most people, this is common sense fact that walking outside boosts immunity, relieves stress and has an overall improvement on general well being.

  • Lucy says:

    Tim I never knock anything until I’ve tried it; and I’ve tried relaxing in a forest many times Always came out refreshed and re-newed so whats wrong with that ? Theres lots of things in nature we havent discovered yet its our natural environment so we’re bound to feel more comfortable and benefit from it

  • Scott says:

    To each thier own, but hey, we began as forest creatures. There is really no suprise here.

  • Jess says:

    This is really comen sence given a named designation. We were meant to live close to nature. Culture has outstripped evolution. Wonderful practice to bring back balance.

  • Kalea says:

    I was relieved to know that going in nude is not required. ;.)

  • Cliff says:

    I’m a psychotherapist and I recommend many ways to connect with nature to my clients. They report feeling better, reduced anxiety, and reduced depression. To be honest, I don’t care if there’s a solid scientific paper out there that will make some cynic happy. This stuff works.

  • jikalili says:

    I bet the Ainu could have told them this without having to do a study…just like most First Nations cultures which are still left at all intact-and still have forests left….oh, wait, I forgot, we are the ‘primatives’….
    Welcome back to the awareness of the Earth…and time…and seasons and cycles and the awareness of the value of the unity of all of Creation -in balance and harmony.

    • Eric says:

      You are absolutely right jikalili. It is ridiculous that we are rediscovering what First Nations people have known all along. Us ‘white’ people with our ‘science’ have a lot to learn…

  • barbara says:

    The green, alive aspect of nature is key. The desert has negative effects on many people, especially during summer.

  • cambol says:

    Iam looking for any japanese partner to come and do studies on my 1000 hectares of natural forest for medical purposes in wewak papua new guinea.Thank you .

  • Ted says:

    Be still. Breathe… the silence. Let go into the experience. Be open to the ancient wisdom of trees and plants. Ahhhhhhh….

  • RJ says:

    One great thing about walking in the forest is that you aren’t at work … a great source of stress for most of us.

  • Madam Dugong says:

    I am happy to consider all practices that foster mental and physical health, but for most people suffering from the effects of stress related to relationship conflict or working long hours etc, taking a full or a half day walk in the forest would be a luxury considering they need to drive for a while to get there.
    Walking through your local park for the same time would likely produce the same results because your NOT at work and NOT with the person you are in conflict with etc.
    Anyone who can walk a full or half day has a good level of fitness, committment to health and probably makes a whole lot of good choices which mean they are not as mentally or physically ill as some.
    But I guess articles that promote common sense through easily achievable and cheap means are too pedestrian these days and people want to hear about ancient forest wisdom, advice from first peoples and magic properties that can solve all our first world woes!

  • Angela says:

    We are nature - it is where we come from and where we end up in. Naturally this is the place where we feel home and when you feel home you are feeling safe and secure and have literally eliminated all stress and anxiety.

    Wonderful that there are scientists who dedicate their work to proving it in experiments as that helps many people to believe it is true and to follow. It helps people to go back to nature and to start appreciating it again and we may take better care of it once we feel the connection.

  • Matthias says:

    It’s not a surprise and I totally agree with Dr Li . The alpine grown timer of Pinus Cembra (Swiss Stone Pine, Arve, Zirbe) is well known for its rich content in flavonoids. The Austrian Human Research Institute found out that even being regularly exposed to P. Cembra - e.g. sleeping in a Zirben made bed - lowers your heart rate dramatically. Up to 3.500 heartbeats per day can be saved in the environment of P. Cembra which is the equivalent of 1 hour cardiac work per day.

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