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Why You Need To Try 'Forest Bathing,' Japan's Stress-Zapping Pastime

Research shows it decreases stress, lowers blood pressure and wards off disease.

07/28/2017 13:38 EDT | Updated 07/31/2017 14:03 EDT

The first time you hear the term, you might assume “forest bathing” means splashing in a spring among some redwoods.

That sounds enjoyable, but it’s not correct: Forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku in Japanese, basically consists of hanging out in the woods and reaping its health benefits (it translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere”). Any time you can walk among trees without distractions or hurrying ― ideally for two hours or more ― counts as a bath in the forest.

The Japanese government coined the term in the early 1980s, hailing forest bathing’s health benefits and pouring research dollars into an already popular national pastime. A 2012 article in Outside Magazine cemented the practice’s popularity in the U.S., and now, resorts and nature parks across the nation offer forest bathing walks that focus on soaking in the sights and sounds of nature.

One forest bathing expert predicts that in 30 years, it’ll be as much a cultural norm as yoga is now. Why?

Forest bathing leaves you less stressed.

From 2004 to 2012, the Japanese government heavily funded forest bathing research, Quartz reports. One study from researchers at Chiba University compared nearly 300 college-age subjects after they took walks in a city and after they walked in a forest. The students had lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rates and and lower blood pressure after they took forest baths than on days when they’d walked in the city. Similarly, in a larger study led by researchers from Kyoto University, participants scored lower on ratings for hostility and depression after spending time in the woods compared to when they roamed an urban setting.

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It may help ward off illnesses, too.

Additional research from Nippon Medical School found that immune-boosting human “natural killer” cells, which help protect against viruses and cancers, showed higher activity levels after subjects went forest bathing, increasing even further after a second day of walking in the woods. The cells continued to function at a higher level for more than a week after the experience, too.

It isn’t entirely clear why forest bathing works, The Washington Post notes: Some experts believe forest bathing’s health benefits come from inhaling phytoncides, the chemicals plants emit to protect themselves from bugs. Others aren’t so sure of the cause, saying perhaps increased feelings of awe are why forest bathers enjoy better health.

At any rate, it’s obvious nature benefits both mind and body: U.S.-based research shows nature walks clear your head more than city strolls, while one European study found that simply living in a tree-filled neighborhood decreased men’s death rates by 16 percent. Spending time in nature is also proven to relieve depression, improve focus, boost creativity and make you feel more alive.

In short, the forest is good for you.

And you won’t be-leaf how easy it is to do.

Japan has designated “forest therapy” walking paths, chosen for their therapeutic qualities, in forests across the nation. The U.S. has no such system, though you can become a certified forest therapy guide and lead others on their own outdoor adventures.

But training isn’t necessary: Simply find a spot with trees, and take a two-hour walk while savoring the sights, sounds and smells of nature without rushing. Breathe deeply, sit occasionally, and touch the trees and plants around you. Soon, you just might find yourself with a greater love for nature ― and a healthier body, too.

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