Forest bathing: effect on psyche and health

Fresh green foliage, the rustling of the leaves and the scent of pine needles: a walk in the forest is good for body and soul. Especially in times of  Corona  , many are drawn out into nature. The fact that exercise in the forest has a positive effect on health is not just a popular belief, but has also been proven by numerous scientific studies. In Japan, with the so-called forest bathing, a real health trend has even emerged, which has meanwhile also spread to Europe and the USA. But why does the forest have a positive effect on health, what exactly is forest bathing and how does it work?

What is forest bathing?

Forest bathing was invented in Japan and describes a consciously experienced, relaxing stay in the forest. The Japanese name  “Shinrin Yoku”  means “bathing in the forest”, which does not  mean bathing  in a forest lake, but bathing in the atmosphere of the forest. An important part of Shinrin Yoku is the conscious experience of nature with all your senses, often in combination with relaxation exercises.

Since the 1980s, forest bathing has been promoted in Japan as an important part of a healthy lifestyle by politics and medical science. Many studies that deal with the topic of forests as a health factor also come from Japan, because so-called forest medicine, or “forest medicine”, is a recognized field of research in Japan. But also in Europe, the USA and Australia, the health benefits of staying in the forest are increasingly becoming the focus of science.

How does forest bathing work?

In Japan, forest bathing has already established itself as an integral part of health care. But also in Germany, corresponding courses are now offered to learn how to bathe in the forest. In addition to the walk, these also include mindfulness or  breathing exercises  and relaxation techniques from  yoga  or  qigong .

Even if there are no rules or fixed instructions for forest bathing, a few tips can help you enjoy forest bathing:

  1. Forest bathing involves being very  aware  of your surroundings with all your senses. Focus on smells, sounds, or colors, like the rustling of leaves or the scent of pine needles.
  2. The  running pace  is rather slow and the walk is long. How long a forest bath should last is not specified, but it can be several hours. According to a US study, 20 to 30 minutes a day also help to reduce the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. 1
  3. Give yourself  enough time  and do not plan any important appointments for this day. You shouldn’t be in a rush.
  4. Take  enough breaks  and drink  enough fluids  . Water or tea are particularly recommended  .

What does forest bathing do?

Forest bathing or a simple walk in the forest are healthy for body and soul. Above all, the following positive effects on health have been scientifically proven:

Mentally:

  • Relaxation through less noise, natural forest sounds and smells
  • Distraction from  stressful  everyday life through impressions in nature
  • increased well-being through a quiet atmosphere in the forest

Physically:

  • decreased cortisol levels
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Strengthening of the immune system
  • relaxation of the muscles
  • humidification of the airways

Studies show that the general reduction in stress as a result of regular visits to the forest has a positive effect on  mental illnesses  such as  depression  or  burnout  and can prevent them. 2

In addition, according to scientific findings, the risk of  cardiovascular diseases  can also be reduced due to the lowered blood pressure and reduced stress levels. 3  The susceptibility to many other diseases also decreases with regular exercise in the forest, as the  immune  system is strengthened. The following explains how these effects come about.

Why is forest bathing healthy?

The positive effects of the forest on the psyche and the body have different causes. Forests have their own  local climate  . This means that the dense foliage reduces environmental influences such as solar radiation, heat and cold. There is higher humidity, which moistens the airways and makes them less susceptible to bacteria and viruses. The trees also ensure a high concentration of oxygen in the air.

In addition, trees serve as noise protection and the canopy of leaves creates a pleasant twilight, which is easy on the eyes. Forest noises, such as the chirping of birds, and pleasant smells do the rest to make us feel comfortable in the forest, because they ensure that the activity of the  parasympathetic nervous system  is increased.

This part of the vegetative nervous system is particularly active during periods of rest and serves to regenerate the organism. If it is active, the heart rate and blood pressure drop. The calm atmosphere relaxes the muscles.

Terpenes: Healthy messenger substances

In addition, trees emit messenger substances. These so-called  terpenes  help the trees to communicate with each other, for example to  ward off fungi  or pests more effectively. They are secreted by leaves and needles and are found in the forest air.

These terpenes are absorbed through the skin or breathing during a walk in the forest and thus enter the bloodstream. Short clothing is therefore recommended when the weather is suitable, as this not only allows more sunlight to be absorbed, but also more terpenes.

In particular, studies by the Japanese scientist Qing Li, a pioneer in the field of forest medicine, provide evidence that the messenger substances in the trees strengthen the   immune  system because they increase the activity and number of killer cells in the blood. These natural killer cells are a subset of  white blood cells  and are part of the immune system. For example, natural killer cells can recognize and kill cells infected with a virus.

In addition, they should increase the production of messenger substances in the brain, which can regulate the cortisol and blood sugar levels as well as blood pressure. Persistently elevated  cortisol levels  are associated with a weakened immune system, depression and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

Does forest bathing also work in the park?

According to the results of an Australian study, trees play a crucial role in the forest’s positive effects on health. It is initially irrelevant whether they are in a forest or, for example, in a park. It should be noted, however, that the amount of messenger substances in the air increases with the number of trees. According to the study, a stay in a green area with no or few trees does not have the same effect as a walk in the forest. 5

Does forest bathing also work in winter?

In principle, forest bathing is also possible in winter. It is true that the bright colors that can be seen in spring, autumn or winter are missing, as is the singing of the birds as a pleasant background noise. But even in winter there is a lot to discover in the forest and the healthy terpenes are still in the air. And: outdoor exercise is good for the body and the psyche at any time of the year.

How much does forest bathing cost?

A big advantage of forest bathing is that it can be practiced by anyone, since you don’t have to be particularly fit or athletic. Another plus is that it costs nothing. However, if you want to learn it with professional guidance, you can also attend a course or a seminar.

Forest bathing course prices vary depending on the content of the course and how long the forest bathing lasts. The costs in Germany are between 25 and 50 euros per course unit.

Conclusion: A visit to the forest is good for your health

Whether in the form of forest bathing, a walk or sport: Numerous studies show that a stay in the forest has a positive effect on the psyche and physical well-being, for example by lowering blood pressure and strengthening the immune system. The forest can therefore represent an important health factor. Therefore, regular walks in the forest are also highly recommended from a scientific point of view.

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