I was driving to work one morning when I heard a fascinating NPR story about forest bathing and how a retreat to nature can boost immunity and mood. If you have not heard about the trendy concept of forest bathing, the study of the practice dates back to the late 1990’s when a test was done by the Department of Gerontotherapeutics at Hokkaido University School of Medicine on 87 test subjects who were non-insulin dependent diabetic patients.
“The task required patients to take walks of either 3 km, which took 30 minutes to complete, or 6 km, which took one hour to complete, in a forest, in which blood samples were taken periodically. The test was implemented 9 times within 6 years and the results showed that the Shinrin-yoku (Japanese translation for forest bathing) significantly benefited the health of diabetic patients, lowering blood glucose levels as far as 38.9% for 3 km walks and 40.0% for 6 km walks.”
The practice of forest bathing is defined simply as taking a short, leisurely walk to a forest that results in positive health benefits. While there is no literal bathing involved, the concept of experiencing all of your senses while strolling in the woods has significant wellness rewards.
A Washington Post article reported that an EPA survey found on average, Americans spend 87% of their time indoors, and 6% inside a closed vehicle. Turns out, the time you spend outside promotes health and has been linked to lower stress levels, improved working memory, and a positive mood.
If you are a city-dweller and don’t have regular access to the deep woods, even urban nature areas according to the Journal of Environmental Psychology can have positive influence on mood and boost your immune system.
Consider getting outdoors for lunch or work breaks to breathe fresh air and come in contact with trees or plantings. Most importantly – get away from the office and let your mind wander away from the confines of walls and buildings. It will reinvigorate your energy level and boost your positivity at work.
Experience All of Your Senses
While the short daily escape to an outside natural setting is worthwhile, do plan for more immersive forest bathing experiences and go deeper into nature. Give yourself permission to use all your senses and react to the stimuli of the natural setting.
Take a few seconds to close your eyes and re-open them to experience the vibrant colors, sounds, and smells of the forest. You can even taste the air of the forest as you expand your sensory palate. Be safe and use good judgment and consider ways to feel the forest with a tactile experience like dipping your toes into a stream or touching the bark of a tree.
A NCBI study found inhalation of cedar wood oils led to a small reduction in blood pressure. Scientists speculate that exposure to these tree compounds might enhance the other benefits of the forest so breathe deeply and enjoy the aromatic and restorative smells of your forest bathing venture.
Forest bathing is mindfulness meets nature. Nina Smiley, PhD in psychology is the co-author of “Mindfulness in Nature” and a firm believer in the power of the forest to calm and heal. Here is a glimpse of her guided forest bathing experience at Mohonk Mountain House in the Hudson River Valley.
“I’m going to invite you to call out your senses as you do this. Let’s allow the spaciousness of nature to become the spaciousness of our minds as we let our thoughts go. Studies suggest that when you’re in nature, the trees and plants emit oils called phytoncides that enhance the immune system. We’ll remove toxins by breathing in and out, gently and fully, she explained, enhancing the paralytic nervous system — the opposite of the stress response.” explains Dr. Smiley.
Slow and Steady Wins the Health Race
As a hiker, my trips to the woods always involved challenging trails and reaching cardio and long distance goals while navigating the great outdoors. With forest bathing, less is more. Meandering, with no particular destination in mind helps you to slow down and immerse yourself fully in the multi-sensory experience of the great outdoors.
My Type A personality had to let go of the previous goal mindset to master the most rugged trails and literally stop and smell the flowers. The new experience was powerful and restorative.
There are certified forest therapy guides who can assist the Type A’s like me with surrendering to the stillness and lack of agenda while forest bathing. My forest bathing experience opened up a brand new world of color, aroma, sounds, and even tastes that I had not allowed myself to experience before while in the woods.
For those who feel trapped in your cubicle and stuck with the blank air and fluorescent lighting of a hermetically sealed office work environment, forest bathing may be the best way to spend some time focusing on you. Refill your cup, renew your senses, and enhance your psychological and physiological health by getting back to nature in a very different way. It’s good for your life and your career!
Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" now in the 2nd edition, and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Executive Director of Career & Professional Development at the Indiana University Alumni Association and contributes to Huffington Post, Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. She hosts and produces an online show: Thrive! about career & life empowerment for women on YouTube. Caroline also hosts the international podcast series Your Working Life - on iTunes and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter.