When was the last time you got some fresh air? Or took a walk to clear your head? We use a lot of phrases that mean “go outside and you’ll feel better” – and research has shown that taking time to enjoy nature can deliver measurable health benefits.
The phrase “shinrin-yoku,” coined by the Japanese government in 1982 to encourage enjoyment of nature, translates to “forest bathing.” The goal is to realize the health benefits of living in the moment and immersing yourself in the sensory experiences of nature.
Researchers are still learning why forest bathing works. However, studies have shown that simply viewing or walking through nature landscapes can lead to physical benefits like:
- Better immune system function
- Decreased sensory pain response
- Lower cholesterol
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Reduced risk of heart disease and high blood pressure
- Slower pulse rate
Most researchers agree that elements of mindfulness and meditation come into play when we spend time in nature, reflecting and enjoying the moment. Some studies have considered whether phytoncides, the “essential oils” like limonene and pinene given off by trees, produce beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
A combination of sensory stimuli can help return the mind and body to a more calm, natural state. While it is not a substitute for mental and physical health care, forest bathing can help you feel better.
Human beings are animals, after all, and our ancestors spent all their time outdoors. But forest bathing doesn’t have to involve strenuous exercise – and you don’t have to spend a lot of time outside to enjoy the benefits. Modern humans can recapture the proven health benefits of spending time in nature by reconnecting to our roots, indoors and outdoors.
Forest bathing fights technostress
Studies have shown that people spend an average of 90% of our time indoors. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re spending 28.5 hours a week looking at mobile devices – not to mention the screen time many people log at work. The combination of stress and screen time can really have an impact on your body and mind, resulting in negative tension called “technostress.” One recent study found that increased screen device usage during the pandemic resulted in more anxiety and depression and less sleep.
Common physical symptoms of technostress include headache, fatigue, chest pain, and trouble sleeping. Unmanaged stress can contribute to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Spending time outdoors has been shown to have significant benefits for stress reduction and mental health.
Tips to practice forest bathing outside
For a classic experience, find a safe natural area with limited distractions so you can be present and take it all in. Seek out a quiet atmosphere with peaceful scenery and fresh air. Everyone’s perfect forest bathing location looks (and smells!) different; find your favorite spot and spend at least 15 minutes there.
Now that you’re prepared, enter the forest and use all of your senses to take in the experience. Look at the landscape, take slow, deep breaths, touch the leaves and soil (but keep an eye out for plants like poison ivy and others that shouldn’t be handled).
When you walk, go slow and stop often. Exercise isn’t the point; it’s about engaging your senses and observing nature. Take a meditative approach and be present with each step you take. Cultivate stillness. Seek out moments of awe and wonder.
Remember to prioritize safety. Know your forest – stay on marked trails and tell someone where you’re headed and when you’re expected back. If you have any concerns about being isolated, bring a friend along for the experience.
Consider these tips to maximize your safety:
- Dress in loose-fitting, layered clothing. Wear sturdy shoes appropriate for the terrain.
- Use sunscreen and insect repellant. Wear a hat and sunglasses for additional protection.
- Check the weather forecast and bring gear such as a raincoat or extra clothes.
- For longer experiences, carry a snack and water.
- Minimize distractions by putting your devices on silent and out of sight.
Enjoying nature indoors
Even microdoses of nature can benefit our health and mood. For example, if it’s difficult for you to spend time outdoors, the simple act of tending to a houseplant can help you feel more relaxed. If you live in an urban environment, seek out a park where you can safely immerse yourself or a view where you can see trees and green growth. Both can improve your sense of well-being.
Research has shown that nature-based guided imagery experiences can help reduce anxiety symptoms more than traditional guided imagery. Many of our patient exam rooms at UT Southwestern feature nature photos, and televisions can be tuned to display similar images. We know these help our patients relax, so we’re carefully curating the viewscape to maximize the benefits.
I remind my patients to spend time with nature every day, whether that’s walking outside or appreciating the plant on your desk. While our understanding of forest bathing's health benefits will continue to grow, finding safe ways to connect with nature can be a low-risk, low-cost addition to caring for our health.
As poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “Why, nature is but another name for health.” To fend off the negative impacts of our stressful modern life, treat yourself to an immersive experience in nature. Getting a breath of fresh air and communing with nature can make a positive difference for your health.
The Forest of Light
UT Southwestern has many locations on its campus in Dallas and at its regional medical centers that include areas to commune with art and nature. The Forest of Light installation, created by Dallas artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr and gifted by an anonymous donor, is one example on West Campus in Dallas. Employees and visitors can experience the ever-changing work by taking a quiet moment to walk through the forest at different times of the day.