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The benefits of forest bathing

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While it might sound like we’re suggesting you take a dip in the middle of a forest, shinrin yoku – or forest bathing – is actually a non-water based therapeutic treat for your general health and wellbeing hailing from Japan.

What is forest bathing?

Contrary to the translated title, forest bathing does not require a pair of swimmers; it is not a bath in the traditional Western sense, rather it refers to bathing – or immersing yourself - in the forest using all of your senses – touch, smell, sound, and sight. Unless you are an expert, it is best to leave taste out of this one!  

Dr. Qing Li, the world's foremost expert in forest medicine, and author of the definitive guide to shinrin yoku, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness says it’s the perfect antidote to society’s ever growing nature deficit disorder created by our urban centric lifestyles.  

Becoming popular in the 80’s, it was championed as an affordable antidote to the physiological and psychological dangers of stress and and low mood in Japan.

Over the past three decades, it has led to the development and widespread adoption of Forest Therapy – now gaining international recognition as an evidence-based medicine.  

The International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance (INFTA), an Australian organisation who provide accredited training in nature therapy, describe it as “a research-based medical practice of guided immersion in forests with the aim of promoting mental and physical health whilst relaxing and enjoying the forest.”  

How can nature bathing help your health and wellbeing?

Dr Li, who heads up the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine which promotes research on the therapeutic effects of forests on human health, notes numerous studies have shown spending mindful, intentional time around trees can promote health and happiness.  
More specifically, his research has found the practice can reduce stress levels and blood pressure, strengthen your immune and cardiovascular systems, boost your energy, mood, creativity, and concentration, and even help you lose weight and live longer.

Other findings?  Essential tree oils, such as phytoncides found in forest air (pine trees and cypress tend to be the richest), increase energy levels by more than 30 per cent, and improved sleep (an average increase by 15 per cent after a two-hour forest walk) and parasympathetic response – our rest-recovery rate.

In addition, a 2018 study found exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of type II diabetes, poor heart health, and stress, noting populations with higher levels of greenspace exposure are also more likely to report good overall health. The research is based upon global data involving more than 290 million people.

Neither last nor least, studies have found nature bathing can be useful in decreasing anxiety.

Why is forest bathing so effective?

The benefits from spending time soaking in the forest may be linked to two key factors.  

Firstly, the higher concentration of oxygen that exists in a forest, as opposed to urban settings.

Secondly, plants contain chemicals called phytoncides. These natural oils help plants fend off bacteria, insects, and fungi, ad for humans, have been linked to reduced physiological stress (measured by a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate).  

These factors aside, the art of forest bathing itself encourages mindfulness, a powerful tool for boosting health and wellbeing in itself. 

How do you practice forest bathing?

First up, you’ll need a forest. If this is easier said than done, there is still plenty of benefit in finding a green space, the more trees the better. If you’re not sure what your options are, check out your State or local government website for links to local and national parks.  

When you arrive, be ready to switch off from distractions (yes, this means switching off your phone if it is not safe to leave it home altogether.)   

Find an activity that allows you to really engage fully with your surroundings. For some, this means walking slowly through the space, while for others, practicing yoga will help you connect your mind and body. You can try any relaxing activity – for example, writing poetry, Tai Chi or simply laying down or sitting.  

Once settled, start engaging each sense. Trail your fingers over the leaves and barks, take in the scents from the leaves and flowers, listen to the noises – the wind, the leaves rustling, birds having a chat – if you really get into it, you may even hear their wings!   

Sessions can take as long as time allows – obviously the longer the better.  

If you’re finding it hard to get your forest bathing groove on, get in touch with INFTA to see if there are any accredited Forest Guides running sessions near you, or check out their website for tips and tricks – and scads of research around the benefits.

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