Okanagan Eco-Noggin  

'Bathing' in the forest

“Forest Bathing” to Improve Mental Health

It probably comes as no surprise that a stroll in the woods is good for our mental state.

However, scientists have recently conducted experiments that shed light on exactly how it is good for us.

A long-standing Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, which translates to "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing,” is known to reduce stress and increase relaxation.

For the past two decades, scientists have expanded upon this intuitive but anecdotal evidence by researching objective measures of how our physiology and mental health respond to interactions with nature.  Since then, studies have confirmed many positive effects on mental health from spending time in nature:

  • Several studies have shown improvements in both working memory and cognitive flexibility after spending time in nature. For examples, researchers measured improvements in both mood and cognitive function of people with major depression following a 50-minute nature walk, compared to control subjects who walked the same amount of time in an urban setting.
  • Inner-city children who were at high risk of adverse behavioral outcomes showed higher levels of impulse control when exposed to more green space.
  • Even in urban environments, living near green settings (and blue, such as near a lake) correlates with higher psychological wellbeing.
  • In the Netherlands (where the population density is more than 100 times higher than in Canada), exposure to green and blue space was associated with lower levels of anxiety and mood disorders. Interestingly, spending time near water was associated with lower mood disorders, compared to green space.
  • Here in Kelowna, UBC-O researchers Dr. Holli-Anne Passmore and Dr. Mark Holder studied the effects of a two-week nature-based well-being intervention (compared to control groups) and found that the nature group had higher levels of positive emotions.

Holder teaches and researches positive psychology, which is a branch of psychology that applies the findings of traditional psychology to improve and enhance measures of mental wellness such as happiness and life fulfilment.

He studies whether well being can be enhanced by exposure to nature, and pointed to several studies that have confirmed this hypothesis.

For example, big data analyses that evaluate tweets and Facebook posts have shown that messages are generally more positive and less aggressive when a person has recently entered a greenspace such as Central Park.

In other studies that exposed people to greenspaces, wetlands and indoor gardens, increases in mood and decreases in stress were measured after as little as five minutes.

Research has shown that we tend to overestimate how happy a given experience will make us. In other words, the experience does not live up to the anticipation. However, there are two exceptions to this rule, where the experience makes us happier than we expected: being in nature, and exercising. These have both been shown to provide more benefit than expected.

Isabel Budke incorporates nature, exercise and social connection into wellness and leadership development at UBC. This month, UBC is hosting “THRIVE”, a month-long series of events to promote mental health and general wellbeing.

Budke is leading two events titled Wednesday Wanderings: Forest-Bathing Walk where UBC (Vancouver) students, staff and faculty are invited to stroll together through Nitobe Memorial Garden.

Budke is an organizational development consultant and leadership coach at UBC, who learned the benefits of nature firsthand through a longtime passion for mountaineering and her own difficult journey of concussion recovery.

She emphasizes that mental health is just one component of overall wellbeing, along with physical, spiritual and emotional health. And forest bathing in a group can benefit all of these dimensions.

Scientists are quick to caution that the short-term benefits of interactions with nature are relatively well known, whereas longer-term benefits require further study.

In other words, interaction with nature is likely to elevate mood and reduce stress in measurable ways, but it is not a substitute for the care that can be provided by medical professionals.

Even with this caveat, the message from this science is unambiguous: The research suggests that nature, exercise, and social relations all improve mental wellbeing, and Forest Bathing with friends combines all three benefits.

Environmental scientists refer to benefits we derive from nature as “Ecosystem Services.” Unfortunately, many ecosystem services result in some degradation of the environment during the extraction of food, materials and energy from the earth.

Environmental economists assign some value to the ecosystem service provided, minus the resulting damage to the environment, so that cost-benefit analyses can inform sustainable development.

Recent analyses that included Forest Bathing as an ecosystem service showed that the potential benefits are substantial, whereas the cost in both economic and environmental terms are close to zero – a stroll in the forest is a low-impact ecosystem service.

As the global population continues our increasing trend of urbanization, opportunities to reconnect with nature become critically important. Here in the Okanagan, we are fortunate to have fantastic urban-forest-interface parks like:

  • Myra-Bellevue
  • Bear Creek
  • Kalamalka Lake
  • Skaha Bluffs
  • Mission Creek Parkway and many others.

For more energetic hikes, we are lucky to have local options such as:

  • Okanagan Mountain
  • Giant’s Head
  • High Rim Trail
  • Boucherie Mountain and other hikes.

The opportunities for a stroll in the forest are never far away.

So step away from the device, grab your friends, and head into the woods.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Okanagan Eco-Noggin articles

About the Author

Jerry Vandenberg is an environmental scientist and owner of Vandenberg Water Science. He lives in the Okanagan region where he is also a paid-on-call fire fighter.

He can be reached at (250) 491-7260; [email protected]; https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerry-vandenberg/

Website: www.vws.ltd


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories