What Is 'Forest Therapy' And What Are Its Health Benefits?

While you may have heard of the term ‘forest bathing’, think about forest therapy as the umbrella that overlaps it.

‘Forest bathing’ has long been heralded in Japanese culture for its immune-boosting powers, while forest therapy speaks to wellness as a whole, with a focus on aiding anxiety and stress.

To find out more, we spoke to AllTrails medical advisor, Dr. Suzanne Bartlett-Hackenmiller, who is a integrative medicine physician, and the director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

What is forest therapy?

Forest Therapy revolves around the guided immersion in forests with the aim of promoting mental and physical health whilst relaxing in nature. Recognised as a research-based public health practice, Forest Therapy is in itself a form of mindfulness with a focus on fresh air and grounding.

How does forest therapy work?

Let by a certified Forest Therapy guide (the International Core Curriculum on Forest Therapy (ICCFT) certifies and accredits training providers and Forest Therapy guides), each experience can differ, however most involve some form of slow breathing, walking and other activities

“We move very slowly along those trails, using all of our senses to just bring us into the moment,” says Brenda Spitzer, a certified forest therapy guide and mentor. “A forest therapy walk gives participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly,” she adds. “The key to forest therapy is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just take it all in.”

“As we move along the trail, I offer my participants a series of invitations, which are simple suggestions of ways to use their senses to connect with nature,” Spitzer explains.

She’s noticed that the first 20 minutes might be hard for some people to unplug. “This is because most of us are used to moving at a fast pace and multitasking during our daily lives,” Spitzer says. “After twenty to thirty minutes, I can actually notice a general slowing down among participants.

How do forests help mental health?

Research is consistently showing that nearly all parameters of mental health are improved by spending time in nature. Studies are finding that doing an activity of your choice, even in small blocks of time, and even in nature that is close to home can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, studies seem to be landing on 120 minutes per week (which is about 17-20 minutes per day) as a sweet spot for the minimum amount of time that humans “need” to be in nature. 

Over the past few years, health providers and health organisations have increasingly adopted the recommendation that people strive to achieve 150 minutes of physical activity per week, and that those 150 minutes can be achieved in 30-minute increments, 10-minute increments, however you can fit it into your day. That said, the biggest challenge we often see is that while people want to get outside, they often don’t know where to start, where to go, or how to plan. With AllTrails, outdoor-lovers can find the location and trail best suited for them, so they can focus on the healing benefits of nature, and not stress about getting lost, or trying out forest therapy for the first time.

Specific studies have shown:

Twenty minutes in nature engaging in a chosen activity reduces salivary stress hormones, alpha-amylase and cortisol, by over 20 percent in study participants (Hunter et al, 2019).

A 90-minute nature walk was associated with decreased rumination [that negative cycle of stress and worry (my definition!)] based on self-reported questionnaires and neuroimaging of subgenual prefrontal cortex (a region that is active during sadness, behavioral withdrawal and depression) (Bratman et al, 2015).

A review of data from 28 papers found forest bathing to have a significant role in promoting human physiology and mental health (Wen et al, 2019).

What about forest bathing?

The terms forest bathing and forest therapy are often used interchangeably, although one could argue that forest bathing is a specific form of forest therapy. “Forest Bathing” is translated directly from the term Shinrin-yoku, which was coined in the early 1980s in Japan. It is a practice where people are guided in a quiet, mindful nature experience where they are asked to sequentially focus on the various senses. In mindfulness practices, one is taught to notice and witness experiences without attachment or emotion, however in forest bathing we encourage the sensations of awe and wonder as they arise.

Forest Bathing/Shinrin-yoku was initially described by Dr. Qing Li and Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki and, because they intuitively knew this practice would be healing for their patients, they have conducted a significant amount of research over the years. Their mental health questionnaires have shown consistently that forest bathing improves depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and other symptoms. They have also found improvements in blood pressure, pulse, heart rate variability, and even stress hormone levels in saliva such as alpha-amylase and cortisol.

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