• Colleen M. Story

Forest Bathing

Updated: Jul 30

The secrets of writers and trees

by Colleen M. Story

This article originally appeared on Writing and Wellness and is reposted here with permission.

Forest bathing—it’s something I’ve done many times, but I didn’t realize I was doing it.

You don’t need a washcloth, soap or shampoo—just a good pair of walking shoes, some comfortable clothes, and all your stress and anxiety.

That’s because forest bathing—or as it’s more commonly known, “taking a walk in the forest”—has been reported in scientific studies to relieve stress and help you relax. No big news there, right? Most everybody finds a quiet walk in the forest restorative. What you may not know is that, in addition to serving as inspiration for many great writers, forest bathing may also help reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease.

What is Forest Bathing?

Called shinrin-yoki in Japanese, forest bathing is more than just taking a walk among the trees, though that is the general idea. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term in the early 1980s to encourage people to get out into the woods and enjoy the scenery and the health benefits. They knew even then that being close to the trees was beneficial to human health.

In 2003, a Japanese survey showed that over a quarter of respondents had been forest bathing. The experience is seen as similar to aromatherapy, where one inhales essential oils to ease symptoms like anxiety, stress, fatigue, and more. Recent studies on the practice show that there is a lot of truth to the connection, and that components released into the air from the wood of the trees can have a significant effect on human health.

Writers and Trees

It’s no secret that a great many well-known writers gleaned inspiration from trees. Richard Horan wrote a great book about it called, Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton.

Horan wrote an article about the book for Huffington Post, in which he provides pictures of the Weeping beech tree that stands on the property where Esther Forbes, author of the Newberry-Prize-winning book, Johnnie Tremain, grew up. The article also shows other photos of trees related to the lives of Shirley Jackson (author of “The Lottery”), Willa Cather (My Antonia), and J. Krishnamurti (“The Function of Education”).

If you travel to California you can see “Jack’s Oak,” said to have provided Jack London (The Call of the Wild) with shade and inspiration. Estimated to be between 200 and 400 years old, it still stands at 50 feet tall on the “Beauty Ranch” in Glen Ellen, where Jack made his home for so many years. The old oak is suffering from invasion by two types of pathogenic fungi, and was scheduled to be torn down, but researchers at University of California, Berkeley, recently deemed it healthy enough to survive another two to ten years—to the great relief of many fans.

Of course, you can’t think of trees and writers without thinking of Henry David Thoreau, who said, “I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”

And Ilan Shamir, who wrote Advice from a Tree, also wrote A New Leaf: Ideas for Writing, Inspired by Trees.

“Trees have inspired creativity throughout the ages,” goes the summary for the book, “in mythology, music, painting, and sculpture, poems and other forms of literature. With its rich sensory images, the tree somehow taps the imagination.”

Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

So if you’re stalling on your latest writing or other creative project, you may need to go find yourself a friend in a tree. But if you’re suffering from today’s most common ailment—stress—it’s time to make an appointment to go forest bathing.

According to scientific studies, the practice provides the following health benefits:

  • Immune boost: So-called “phytoncides”—like a-pinene and limonene, which are essential oils from the wood of forest trees—increase the activity of killer cells, immune fighters that keep cancer cells in check. In 2010, researchers tested healthy male subjects aged 37-55. They had them take walks in both the city and the forest. Both walks were 2.5 km in length and lasted about two hours. They measured phytoncides in the air, took blood samples and had participants complete a survey after the trip. They also took follow-up blood samples on day 7 and day 30 after the walks. Results showed that not only did the forest walk increase activity of natural killer cells (while the city walk did not), but the effects were still there 30 days later. In a second part of the same study, researchers found similar effects on women.

  • Stress-relief: In the study mentioned above, researchers also measured levels of adrenaline in the urine of both the male and female participants. Forest bathing trips significantly decreased the adrenaline levels, suggesting the participants were under lower stress during their time in the forest. Other studies have found similar results, with forest bathing reducing levels of “cortisol,” the stress hormone, and increasing self-reported vigor, as well as decreasing anxiety, depression, and anger. An earlier 2007 study found that the stress-relieving effects were even greater for participants who were experiencing “chronic stress,” suggesting that forest bathing could be part of a therapeutic treatment.

  • Heart health: In another 2010 study, researchers conducted experiments in 24 areas in Japan. They found that not only did forest bathing reduce cortisol levels, but also reduced average blood pressure levels. Other measurements showed that the experience greatly increased relaxation and decreased stress.

  • More energy and better mood: Information from these studies also shows that even just viewing the forest (without walking through it) helped reduce fatigue and improve mood, when compared to viewing city landscapes. Walking through the forest increased the benefits—participants scored lower in tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, while scoring higher in vigor, when compared with walking in the city.

Researchers added that the effect on killer cells is significant, as they can kill tumor cells by releasing anti-cancer proteins. In addition to showing increased natural killer cell function, these studies found an increase level of anti-cancer proteins after forest bathing, suggesting that the trips may “have a preventive effect on cancer generation and development.”

The Trees Are Key

All of these studies point to the trees as providing most of the health benefits. Participants breathe in air laden with phytoncides, which are responsible for that lovely scent one encounters when in the forest. Just like essential oils have shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial effects, so their aromas also seem to have healthful effects on the human body and mind. We breathe in the chemicals released by these oils as we walk among the trees, taking in their protective benefits.

So important are the trees, in fact, that studies have shown their presence outside of hospital windows improves recovery. A 1984 study reviewed data from patients who stayed in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. Some stayed in rooms with windows that looked out on a small stand of deciduous trees, while others stayed in rooms with windows looking out on a brown brick wall. All were served by the same nurses, with rooms being nearly identical in terms of size and furniture.

Results showed that those who had a view of the trees had significantly shorter hospital stays and fewer postsurgical complaints, used less-potent pain medications, and received fewer negative comments in the nurses’ charts than those who stayed in the rooms with the view of the brick wall.

Even just looking at images of nature can help some. A 2010 study, for example, found that views of nature help relieve stress and pain in healthcare settings.

For Your Next Forest Walk

To try forest bathing for yourself, find your nearest natural area with trees, and follow these tips:

  • Plan your walk in such a way that you don’t get too tired on the trip.

  • Try to stay at least an hour in the forest surroundings.

  • Take along some water or snacks to make the experience more pleasant if you like.

  • You don’t necessarily have to spend the whole time walking—leave your ideas of a “workout” or “exercise routine” behind. Instead, bring along a journal or a good book so you can just sit and absorb the atmosphere along the way.

  • If you are in dire need of stress or health recovery, plan a two-to-three day trip to a forested area. You may want to stay in a cabin or something similar and walk among the trees every day.

  • For everyday maintenance, a daily walk in a park near your home can also be helpful.

What do you think of forest bathing? Will you go soon?

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