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Forest bathing: a natural way towards wellbeing

If you go down to the woods today, you could be in for a big (and healthy) surprise.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 6 mins

The call of the wild

Being in the wilderness:

  • Reduces stress and anxiety and brings a state of calm.

  • Improves concentration, memory, and clarity.

  • Improves cardiovascular and metabolic health.

  • Lowers blood pressure.

  • Improves energy.

  • Boosts immune function.

  • Improves pain thresholds and faster recovery.

  • Promotes healthy lifestyle and assists with weight management.

  • Improves wellbeing, happiness, and balance.

  • Increased quality of sleep.

The Japanese have a term for it: shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. The Germans call it Waldeinsamkeit, the enlightened feeling of solitude in the woods. We may know it as eco-therapy or, perhaps disparagingly, “tree hugging”.

Whichever term you choose, it’s about immersing ourselves in nature to recharge our mental, spiritual, and physical selves.

Studies show nature immersion, or even a walk in the bush or garden, has profound mental and physical benefits.

Not able to get out into the forest? Never fear. While ideally practised outdoors, you can also have the experience inside your home.

Having indoor plants and pets and using natural elements in the house can bring us in contact with nature and out of ourselves and self-concerns, if only for a while. 

So, what is Japanese forest bathing? It’s wonderfully poetic – and a little weird.

In Japan, shinrin-yoku is a formalised public health intervention used by millions of people a year to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and stress.

Across the country there are more than 65 accredited Forest Therapy Trails. Patients have an assessment and are assigned a dedicated woodland trail route based on its health-giving properties.

Dr Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School and author of the book Forest Bathing is the foremost expert on the practice and inventor of the term.

He says forests, and nature in general, stimulate the five senses to produce benefits and improve wellbeing:

Sight: Green and yellow colours, the forest, and natural landscape. 

Smell: Fragrances from plants and essential oils from trees called phytoncides. 

Hearing: Forest sounds, bird song, murmuring of rivers, and the rush of the wind. 

Touch: The feeling of touching trees and putting your whole body in a nature atmosphere. 

Taste: Eating foods from forests, tasting the fresh air in forests, and drinking pure water. 

Tips for maximising nature immersion

  • Keep a nature journal to deepen your immersion in the environment.
  • Practise mindful breathing and meditation while surrounded by trees.
  • Focus on the smells, sounds, textures and sights around you.
  • Practising yoga outdoors can add another dimension to your exercise and enables you to fully disconnect and enjoy the calming surrounds.
  • Alone or in a group? Being solo allows for deep contemplation and connection with nature, while walking with a guide can provide education and lead activities.
  • Spend at least 30 minutes in nature to gain the full effects.
  • Leave your phone behind or on airplane mode to prevent digital distractions.

In his book, Dr Li advises: “Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices.

“Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere.

“You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”

Forest bathing has been found to lower the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which in high volume disrupts the body’s processes.

There are also mental benefits when we turn our attention outwards, away from the inward focus of rumination or anxiety.

Forest bathing proponents say it can give rise to sensations of nourishment and growth, strengthening healing.

Being active in an outdoor environment also enhances positivity. Participants score higher on metrics of wellbeing after outdoor exercise compared to indoor activity.

Exposure to sunlight and fresh air while moving our bodies re-energises us. Research even suggests that the colour green may positively impact emotions and relaxation.

The Australian setting

The bush has a lot to offer when it comes to eco-therapy.

Ask bushwalkers and they’ll describe the happy feelings of living in the moment and the arousal of the senses: smells of the bush, birds singing, the brush of shrubs on skin, dew on the ground, the early and evening light, watching the stars and hearing the wind in the trees or water over the falls. 

There’s also the crunch of vegetation underfoot, sounds of wild animals, and your own deep breathing.

In the bush, you are living in the moment.

Away from stress and anxiety, the news churn, and the worries of the day, there is a stillness.

Studies also suggest that being outdoors greatly helps improve positive emotions and helps us deal with problems.

Related reading: Raw Travel, The Forest Bathing Institute, Advaya, The Guardian

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