- Forest bathing—the practice of spending time in nature—has scientifically backed mental and physical health benefits.
- The benefits of forest bathing are best achieved by going out and engaging with nature.
- If you have limited access to natural or green environments, working with plants, decorating with natural themes, and connecting with nature through technology can also be helpful.
We’ve all been there: reading the same sentence over and over because your brain is exhausted and can’t take in any more information. Socializing with friends or going to the movies are both helpful for breaking up that brain fog, but there might be a better option. After months of social distancing and living through the stressors of a global pandemic, getting outdoors and connecting with nature can improve both mental and physical wellness.
One simple way to interact with nature? Forest bathing.
The science behind forest bathing
The practice is also known as forest therapy or nature bathing, and was originally coined in the 1980s in Japan as shinrin-yoku. But it’s not just a few decades old; for a long time, scientists have noted the advantages of being connected to nature.
What are those advantages, you ask? For starters, a 2017 literature review of forest bathing studies published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health highlights these:
There are multiple theories as to why humans benefit from being in and around nature. According to a 2018 review of multiple studies published in Environmental Research, this can be due to the association of green space—land that is partially or completely covered with trees, grass, and other greenery—with social interactions and physical activity, while other researchers note the health benefits of sunlight and exposure to microorganisms for the immune system.
The science behind this long-standing practice might make forest bathing sound complex, but it’s surprisingly simple in nature. (Pun intended.) Here’s how to start implementing this soothing practice into your daily life.
Find a space for forest bathing
The goal of forest bathing is to replenish your energy by being aware of and connected to the natural world around you. The good thing about this practice is it requires little in the way of materials and is accessible nearly everywhere.
If your campus has dedicated green space, it’s probably easy to find a quiet spot for forest bathing. But if this isn’t the case, do a quick search for nearby parks or greenbelts (a designated area that cannot be developed for construction) that will be free of buildings and car traffic. You can also find out if your city sponsors botanical gardens or other nature-based exhibits at little to no cost. Just be sure to check local public health guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing, if those are in place.
Timing for maximum benefits
Don’t have an hour and a half to wander through a nearby greenbelt daily? That’s OK. “Start with 20–30 minutes, once per week,” says Dr. Margaret Hansen, a retired professor from the University of San Francisco. Dr. Hansen has done extensive research on forest bathing and participates in it regularly. “That [20–30 minutes] can even be broken up into 10- or 15-minute sessions,” she says.
Note that this isn’t a “one and done” sort of endeavor; the more often you practice forest bathing, the easier it will be to reap the benefits. “General mindfulness is much more accessible [after being in nature],” says Jeremy B., a second-year graduate student at the University of Florida. “My anxiety dissolves because I dedicate some boundaries to my outdoor time and choose to focus on work when I get home.”
Forest bathing without the forest
If there aren’t nearby green spaces that you can access, or those available aren’t in safe areas, there are still ways to receive the benefits of forest bathing. (Note that access to green spaces is not always fair or equitable; they are more likely to be found in middle and upper income neighborhoods than in lower income areas.)
Working with plants
Houseplants are perfect companions for forest bathing. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, researchers found that taking the time to work with plants decreased blood pressure, and participants reported feeling more comfortable and soothed than when they started.
If your space is small, grab a succulent or two to place on windowsills. For those with a green thumb, a window garden is perfect for growing herbs for cooking. Remember, the goal isn’t to become a master gardener but instead to engage with nature. “If you’re totally void of places to go [forest bathing], get a houseplant,” says Dr. Hansen. “That doesn’t mean going out and buying an expensive plant. It could mean buying some seeds and some dirt. Just engage [with] a plant.”
To save even more you can ask friends or family for cuttings from their plants. Certain plants—such as succulents, spider plants, and bromeliads—grow well from cuttings. Just check online for the proper method to cut and grow the plant at hand.
Decorate with natural themes
There’s also something to be said for simply observing the colors often found in nature. A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology reported the color and hue preferences of 433 students living in six residence halls that were identical save for the interior colors. Among participants, blue was found to be the most preferred color to induce studying, with green a close second when it came to pleasantness.
Implement these colors by hanging up tapestries or wall art in these schemes or adding blankets and pillows in varying shades of the cool colors. Change your laptop background and theme to blue to help you focus when you’re studying. You don’t have to have pictures of nature exactly, but a landscape painting of beautiful scenery isn’t a bad idea.
Use online resources
If you’re in need of nature at a time when it’s not easily accessible—say, in the middle of the night or during a cold snap—there are virtual options that can help.
“We have found that nature sounds have more positive benefits [than] urban sounds,” says Dr. Marc Berman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago in Illinois. These benefits included feeling calm and relaxed after listening to the sounds of nature. Think about adding nature sounds to your study or meditation routine, or listening to them to help you fall asleep. You can find playlists of nature sounds on most streaming platforms.
“Natural environments have fractal stimulation, or self-repeating patterns, that people like to look at,” continues Dr. Berman. “A lot of natural stimulation can restore our directed attention, [which is] the attention we use every day to decide where we’ll put our energy.” This means if your brain is feeling burned out, taking a short break to look at images of nature online can help restore some of that focus better than, say, a Hulu binge session.
Navigating the highs and lows of college while nurturing your mental and physical well-being can often seem a lofty ambition. One way to help is by having practices like forest bathing, which can be done nearly anywhere, in your back pocket. Regularly implementing shinrin-yoku is proven to have significant benefits, and considering the minimal time and resources it requires, it’s an ideal way to fit self-care into a busy academic schedule.
Marc Berman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, University of Chicago, Illinois.
Margaret Hansen, Ed.D., professor emeritus, University of San Francisco, California.
Costa, M., Frumento, S., Nese, M., & Predieri, I. (2018). Interior color and psychological functioning in a university residence hall. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1580. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01580
Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(8), 851. doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080851
Lee, M. S., Lee, J., Park, B. J., & Miyazaki, Y. (2015). Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: A randomized crossover study. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 34(1), 21. doi.org/10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8
Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628–637. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030