Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller on Forest Therapy and its Benefits
While the terms forest bathing and forest therapy are often used interchangeably, this mobile meditation under the canopy of living forests was developed in Japan during the 1980s as a part of its national health program. Forest therapy is not just a walk in the woods, however. It’s a conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. People practicing forest therapy are guided in a quiet, nature experience during which they are asked to sequentially focus on the various senses.
Research has consistently shown that forest therapy improves depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and other symptoms. Over the years, researchers have also found improvements in blood pressure, pulse, heart rate variability, and even stress hormone levels in saliva. In fact, according to several studies, nearly all parameters of mental health are improved by spending time in nature.
In recent years, health providers have increasingly recommended that people strive to achieve 150 minutes of physical activity per week, even in small blocks of time, such as 10- or 30-minute increments. Studies similarly find that performing an activity of your choice in nature that is close to home can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Research suggests that 120 minutes per week, or about 17-20 minutes per day, in nature is the minimum amount of time needed to achieve optimal health benefits.
In one study, 20 minutes of activity in nature reduced the salivary stress hormones alpha-amylase and cortisol by over 20% in study participants. In another study, a 90-minute nature walk was associated with decreased rumination in participants, a finding based on self-reported questionnaires and neuroimaging of the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain implicated in depression.
There are many ways to experience mindfulness outdoors. Any time you slow down, simply breathe deeply and allow yourself to focus on the sensory experience. Spending as little as 20 minutes a day outdoors is the best prescription for mental health, and it’s free and comes with absolutely no drug interactions or side effects.
Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller is an OB-Gyn and Integrative Medicine physician, the author of The Outdoor Adventurer’s Guide to Forest Bathing, Lead Medical Advisor for AllTrails and a Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABOIM), a Member Board of the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS).