If you go down to the woods today

My wife and I moved to our new home last summer. As you can imagine given the COVID pandemic we have not been able to fully appreciate and utilise the amenities we have around us yet. One area we have been able to explore a little since moving are the local parks and green spaces, of which we are fortunate to have a couple of wonderful options.

For the most part our local park is much like any other; playground, fields, trees, skatepark and a bowling green. One thing I think is unique, at least compared with the other parks in the city, is a Japanese themed walled garden at one edge of the park. Consisting of a pond, Japanese trees, artificial waterfall and pagoda, it offers a small tranquil area which is rarely busy even when the rest of the park is full.

I love walking around this section of the park. It is relaxing and peaceful, a welcome moment to escape from the busy world outside. My wife is less of a fan, but keeps me company when I go for a wander. It is also a time when I frequently find myself thinking about Shinrin-Yoku 森林浴, known in English as Forest Bathing.

If you have even a passing interest in health and wellbeing you have most likely heard of forest bathing, and may well know what it is and what it entails. For those of you new to the idea or those who are unsure, the formally-described concept of forest bathing began in Japan all the way back in the 1980s.

As a country who live predominantly in densely populated urban areas, the Japanese government was instrumental in pushing the idea of getting outside into green space as a way to boost health and wellbeing. Researchers and formal therapy centres followed, as first the idea spread to Korea and China and then on to Europe and North America. I have written above it was the formal idea of forest bathing coming from Japan, because of course people have intuitively understood the benefits of nature before this, especially as more and more of us moved to cities and towns. As the idea of forest bathing has spread, it has also morphed into a myriad of varieties, with therapies like CBT added for some, group activities for others, while some braver people have adding in things like wild swimming to boot.

While the terms used in books and research can vary, broadly speaking forest bathing is the practice of getting into wildlife to boost people’s wellbeing, while forest therapy is the term used for treatments offered to people with mental health issues such as depression. It is the former term I am writing about below, something which we can all apply to our daily life to help improve our wellbeing.

With the Japanese government beginning the formal study of forest bathing in the 80s, we have begun to develop a better understanding of what forest bathing can do for our health and wellbeing. So what have we learned in the last forty years?

What does the research say?

Pretty much anything you read about forest bathing will claim it is evidence-based within the first paragraph or two. I’m naturally sceptical whenever I read an idea is evidence-based. At the back of my mind I wonder why they feel the need to brag so forcefully, and any claim should be treated with caution.

Despite my intuitive sense of forest bathing as a good thing for health and wellbeing, it is important to examine any claim of supporting evidence thoroughly. Thankfully, much of this work has been done for us very recently by Stier-Jarmer et al. who have recently published an important review on the topic.

Their paper is a review of reviews, collating evidence from a series of 11 systematic reviews which had assessed a total of 131 primary research papers. As you might guess, most of these were from the Far East, and some of the papers are not particularly high quality, so this should be taken into consideration when using the results. There is also a suspicious lack of negative findings, everything is either positive or neutral. Even with a really good intervention, by chance you would expect some negative results, so their absence could suggest evidence has not been published which showed problems with forest bathing.

Taking these caveats into consideration, on the whole the findings are positive. It appears broadly my intuition is correct, with evidence suggesting benefits for mental health including anxiety, stress, depression and quality of life, as well as benefits for physical health issues such as heart health and immune markers.

How best to forest bathe?

Intuitively, and tentatively according to the evidence, forest bathing is a good thing for our health and wellbeing, and if this is the case how can we make best use of green space?

It might appear the answer to the question is simple; get outside and see the world. Of course, on a basic level this is good advice, but there are a few caveats to this. Access to green space is not universal. I am lucky to have two spaces within walking distance and plenty more within a short drive, but this is not the case for everyone. For those who live in dense urban environments or are less mobile, getting to what would traditionally be considered a space to forest bathe can be challenging.

For this reason, I take a broader view of what space can be used for forest bathing than is traditional. Obviously forests and woodlands are on the list, as well as rural landscapes such as meadows and moorland. But many of these may be out of reach for some, so I consider a few potentially more accessible options below for your bathing time.

  • Parks: in even the most densely packed city there is often a park or communal green space to amble away some time. If the space has a wooded area all the better
  • Canals: frequently found running through urban spaces, canals (and rivers) often have a tree line either side giving hints of the natural world
  • The coast: may be better called blue bathing, fresh sea air can blow away the cobwebs even if the land away from the coast is less than picturesque
  • The garden: for those lucky enough to own a garden or yard, fill it with plants and trees and create your own small, private forest to bathe in
  • Houseplants: if all else fails and you cannot get out of the house, try bringing plants into the home and spend time surrounded by them. Just remember to water them regularly…

Once we have found our green space, we then need to consider what to do with our time there. Exercise might seem like the obvious choice, with walking, running, cycling, even rollerblading options to get some cardio while enjoying the greenery.

But beyond aerobic exercise, there are other ways to pass your time when forest bathing. You might just choose to sit and soak in the ambience, or take a picnic and enjoy food by yourself or with friends. You could try resistance exercises with weights and stretching (or a personal trainee if you like, something I have seen a lot more in parks over the last year). Yoga, mindfulness and meditation are great activities to take part in outside, while the artistic amongst you may take paper and pencils to sketch or write when inspiration takes you.

No matter how you choose to spend your time outside, make sure you are absorbing the green space using all of your senses. Seeing the world around you of course, but also listening to the sounds (make sure you take the headphones out even for a few minutes), soak in the smells of plants and trees and touch and feel what you can of leaves and bark. If you do choose to taste the world (probably not advised) make sure you know what you are chewing on…

Making plans

Hopefully I have piqued your interest in forest bathing and the potential benefits for our health and wellbeing. All you have left is to decide what you want to do about including forest bathing into your life.

My advice would be to start small. If you are an infrequent explorer of green space, it is unlikely you will go from nothing to day long hikes through the wilderness, as much as it would be great if you could do so. Whenever it comes to making changes to our life and lifestyle, small, incremental changes are more likely to stick than big sudden commitments, so consider starting small and building later on this foundation.

Why not set yourself the goal this weekend of one extra walk in a green space, with a plan to make a note of the sights and sounds and smells around you when you do. Immerse yourself in the forest, no matter how small, near to you on a regular basis and see what changes it can make to your health and wellbeing. And of course tell us about your plans and thoughts in the comments and share your tips and tricks for forest bathing with everyone.

Whatever happens this weekend, enjoy!

Update: I have written about my forest bathing adventure here.

6 thoughts on “If you go down to the woods today

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