Why "Forest Bathing" Can Boost Your Physical and Mental Health

It can happen in as few as five minutes.

man in red in forest

This Sunday, I’m thinking about the outdoors. I’m traveling in Israel right now and was recently in a desert town called Mitzpe Ramon. There, I learned about Israel’s first outdoor kindergarten. When school starts at 7:30 a.m., kids ages 3 to 6 meet in a grove of pine trees near an enormous canyon. It’s a public school program that supporters say teaches children a unique type of independence, while allowing them to learn in a healthier environment.

Israel isn’t the only country interested in “forest kindergartens.” Germany has over 1,000 of them. Studies show that these kindergartens positively influence physical skills like agility and coordination, and academic skills, like concentration and creativity.

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Nature demonstrably affects adults in positive ways as well. Being exposed to sunlight elevates our sense of well-being, and there’s research that shows just five minutes of exercising in the presence of nature improves self-esteem and mood. A 2005 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that when patients are exposed to natural light, they often heal faster because they experience less pain and stress.

Man hiking in nature.
Do this more.

These findings underlie the practice of Shinrin-yoku, a form of nature therapy also known as “forest bathing.” A 2010 study found that spending time in forests lowers blood pressure, cortisol concentrations, and pulse rate. Meanwhile, people in the study who stayed in cities did not experience those health benefits.

In this 2010 study, scientists conducted a series of tests evaluating the link between the outdoors and vitality — the state of feeling strong and active. They found that being outside versus inside caused people to feel more energized. Furthermore, simply looking at a photograph of nature ignited that feeling.

Co-author and Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor Kirk Brown, Ph.D. says that attention restoration theory is often seen as the backbone of feeling better. Natural environments are novel and diverse, and in turn, they hold our attention. This process replenishes our energy and nourishes us.

Brown tells me that he hopes people can take advantage of his research in three ways:

  • The first hope is that we really do take all of this into account, and use nature to revitalize psychological and physical reserves of nature.
  • The second is that we take seriously the benefits nature can have on our mental health.

Research shows that, on average, people consider themselves to be a part of nature — but we do a pretty crap job at showing it.

This Week’s Chill Icon

Capybara

The capybara has a lifetime membership to the chill club. It may be the largest rodent on Earth, but it’s no R.O.U.S.. These easy-going animals live in groups of ten and are social creatures by nature. They are so social, in fact, that they let other animals sit on them. Birds, monkeys, cats — they are cool with whomever, which is the cornerstone of a chill icon.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.