Forest Bathing: The hot new trend that… Wait, what?
What’s the newest way to feel well-rested? Forest bathing. Before you roll your eyes and click away, it’s important to note that forest bathing requires no actual bathing, nudity or even getting wet. It’s actually much simpler than all that: It’s just walking in the woods. That’s about it. And it’s so good for your healthy sleep routine—and your overall health.
Forest bathing is a therapeutic practice that started in Japan in 1982. It’s the act of taking slow, short strolls over several hours in forested areas while contemplating nature. And it’s no hokey fad. The physical and psychological benefits are so evident that Japan now has 48 official forest therapy trails, and the Japanese government has poured $4 million into funding forest therapy research since 2004.
The science of forest bathing
What has all that research found? Forest bathing can actually lower blood pressure and blood glucose, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, decrease anxiety, anger and depression, and even boost immune function and quality of life in cancer patients. And all that’s before you get to the sleep benefits: In one study, participants with sleep issues who took one two-hour forest walk reported increased sleep time, better sleep depth and overall sleep quality.
No one really knows how it works, though. Margaret Hansen, a professor at the School of Nursing and Health Professions at the University of San Francisco, says it might have to do with how tree oils inspire bodies to release oxytocin—the same thing that gives us an emotional boost after human contact. “Forest bathing is like getting a hug. It enhances our emotional well-being,” says Hansen. So, essentially, forest bathing is tree hugging that hugs you back.
How to forest bathe
Forest bathing sounds simple, but in order to reap all the benefits, a little guidance helps. Certified forest therapy guide Denell Nawrocki shares these tips:
- Remove distractions. Forest bathing is all about genuine connection with the forest. Turn off all electronic devices.
- Do some mental prep work. Before beginning any walk, take 10 minutes to “drop in” to the experience, by closing your eyes and taking in deep breaths. “Notice the different sensations that are on your skin,” says Nawrocki. “What sorts of smells are in the air? What do you hear? How is your body responding to the nature around you with your eyes closed.”
- Allow yourself time and space. Most forest bathing walks last two to three hours, with the first 45 minutes spent fully arriving in the right mental state.
- Take it slow. Forest bathing isn’t vigorous exercise. To truly reap the benefits, move slowly. Nawrocki’s forest therapy walks generally run two to three hours and can cover less than half a mile.
- Follow what calls to you. “Go see what caught your eye,” Nawrocki says. “If you notice something in the treetops, stop and take time to observe it.”
- Do focus on safety. Be aware of hazards, such as poison ivy, ticks or snakes. If you are going by yourself, tell someone where you’re going.
Diving into forest bathing
If you want to take the plunge solo, you can find a free forest therapy starter kit online, or you can find a guide near you. Though hiring a guide to walk through the woods might sound silly, it’s similar to how an instructor guides you though a yoga practice, physically and mentally.
Can’t get to an actual forest, or want to squeeze the benefits out in a shorter amount of time? One study found a 15-minute forest therapy walk through an urban forested environment—Central Park, for example—resulted in some of the same psychological and physiological health benefits as the longer walks. So do what you can. Whether you’re going in for a deep forest bath or just dipping your toe into the practice, expect to sleep better and feel more relaxed after your walk in the woods.
Written by Rita Colorito
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