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A beginner's guide to forest bathing

Visitor enjoying a peaceful moment at Colby Woodland Garden, Pembrokeshire
Forest bathing beds at Minnowburn in Northern Ireland | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Today's busy lives can have a significant impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle for a while, why not have a go at forest bathing? Despite the name you won’t need to pack your swimsuit: it simply means the practice of slowing down and immersing yourself in the forest atmosphere.

The science behind forest bathing

Forest bathing or ‘shinrin-yoku’ was first developed in Japan in the 1980s, following scientific studies conducted by the government. The results showed that two hours of mindful exploration in a forest could reduce blood pressure, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve concentration and memory.

They also found that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have a protective antimicrobial effect on human bodies and thereby boost the immune system. As a result of this research, the Japanese government introduced ‘shinrin-yoku’ as a national health programme.

Forest bathing in the UK

Over the last few years forest bathing has begun to gain popularity in the UK. Many of us naturally head outside as a way to unwind and feel refreshed, but the benefits of nature therapy are also backed up by science: in 2018 academics at the University of Derby found that improving a person’s connection with nature led to significant increases in their wellbeing.

The sun is shining on a woodland path through trees on the top of Alderley Edge, Cheshire.
A woodland pathway at Alderley Edge | © National Trust Images/David Noton

Top tips for forest bathing

Forest bathing is no more complicated than simply going for a wander in your local woods or park. The only difference is that rather than walking for exercise, you take the time to really focus on the natural world around you, from the rays of sunlight catching the leaves to birdsong echoing from the canopy. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Pick a quieter time of day. There will probably be fewer people around if you go to the woods in the early morning or later in the evening. Depending on your schedule you could also try weekday afternoons (outside of the school holidays).
  • Try turning off your electronic devices. An hour or two of digital detoxing will help you to slow down and focus on your surroundings.
  • Take your time. Wandering slowly through the trees can be very meditative, or you can settle down on a log to really take in your surroundings. If you stay still and quiet enough you’re also more likely to see wildlife, such as deer and birds.
Sunlight is casting rays between the trunks of densely planted trees in dark woodland in Ennerdale, Cumbria
Sunlight glancing through the trees in woodland at Ennerdale | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish
  • Use all of your senses. When did you last touch a tree trunk and feel the rough bark, or notice the way sunlight catches the leaves, or try to pick out all the different types of birdsong around you?
  • Pay attention to your breathing. This is a great way to relax and clear your mind so you can focus on what’s around you. Try closing your eyes and taking 10 slow, deep breaths in and out, then gently open your eyes and bring your awareness back to the forest.
  • Stay as long as you feel comfortable. Two hours is the recommended time for a forest bathing session, but if you’ve got a busy schedule then even just 10 minutes in nature can help you to feel refreshed.

Study shows that woodland sounds boost wellbeing

We commissioned a study that explored how soaking up the sounds of the natural world affects people, and found it relaxes us more than if we listen to a voiced meditation app.

Respondents were asked how they felt after listening to a one-minute recording of forest sounds, a meditative app or silence. The results showed that people felt 30 per cent more relaxed, 25 per cent less stressed and 20 per cent less anxious after listening to these sounds.

Further research of 2,000 British adults revealed that almost 40 per cent felt that hearing their favourite woodland sounds makes them happy, and birdsong topped the list as the most popular sound of woodlands.

Sometimes, a simple walk in woodlands, where you’re surrounded by the echoes of calling birds, and that satisfying crunch of fallen leaves and twigs underfoot, is the perfect remedy for reducing stress.

A quote by Patrick BeggNational Trust Outdoors and Natural Resources Director

No matter whether the connection is with an outdoor or urban place, our research shows the intrinsic link between connections to place and the triggering of positive emotional experiences.

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