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UWF project promotes Japanese 'forest bathing' to improve mental health

Trees on UWF campus
John Perkins
University of West Florida
The University of West Florida’s forested trail system on the Pensacola main campus offers a welcoming, accessible location for forest bathing.

Shinrin-yoku, which translates as "forest bathing," is a form of meditative hiking, and evidence of its benefits is so compelling that writing a prescription for the exercise has become standard practice in Japan.

On a recent Friday, I set out for a hike with Chasidy Fisher-Hobbs at the University of West Florida’s campus trail system in Pensacola.

Fisher-Hobbs is a professor at UWF and has been a leader in recent efforts to interpret and conserve the college’s forested, 1,600-acre campus.

By 9 a.m., it was already too hot, and plodding along the cloistered, piney pathway felt like wading into a bathtub filled with warm water.

But it was a different kind of bath that had brought us there: We were “forest bathing,” a form of meditative hiking that originated in Japan.

"The phrase 'shinrin-yoku' or 'forest bathing' was first coined in the 1980s by the head of Japan's forestry agency," explained Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a Washington D.C., author and naturalist. "They were very concerned in Japan about the fact that people worked really long hours, especially in Tokyo, and people were very stressed out and suffering all kinds of physical and mental health effects."

Choukas-Bradley has written multiple books about shinrin-yoku. Her most recent, “Wild Walking: A Guide to Forest Bathing Through the Seasons,” will be published this month.

"There are now more than 60 forests dedicated to this practice (in Japan)," she added, "and they encourage people to go out and walk the trails — to really slow down, to breathe deeply, to just immerse themselves in the beauty and wonder of nature. And it's had an incredible healing effect."

Choukas-Bradley's most recent book — "Wild Walking: A Guide to Forest Bathing through the Seasons" — will be published June 4.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley
Melanie Choukas-Bradley's "Wild Walking: A Guide to Forest Bathing Through the Seasons" will be published Tuesday.

Fisher-Hobbs has experienced that healing effect firsthand.

"I have always felt like being in the woods had amazing, positive influences on me, cognitively, mood wise," she said. "I just feel all-around better when I come back from my camping trips, and so I started getting curious about that and did a little research and discovered that Japan has been doing that as an official part of their medical system for generations. And I was like, 'Well, there you go.'"

With the help of a grant from the Episcopal Church’s Creation Care program, Fisher-Hobbs spearheaded the installation of a series of interpretive displays on UWF’s cross-country trails with the goal of initiating hikers into the practice of shinrin-yoku.

We encountered one such sign on the trail Friday.

"Slow down," it admonished. "Pretend you are a snail, slower. Move through the forest, deliberately feeling the changes in shadow, sunlight, warmth, coolness and texture of the terrain."

Research suggests forest bathing could improve cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and improve respiratory, metabolic and immune function.

The evidence is so compelling that writing a prescription for forest bathing has become standard practice among medical doctors in Japan and, increasingly, doctors in the United States are doing so, too.

Aside from physical health, there is also a growing body of research that suggests forest bathing can improve one’s mental health.

"One of the things that's been studied that I relate to from my personal life is how forest bathing helps with ruminative thinking," Choukas-Bradley said. "Ruminative thinking is a negative thought pattern. It's when you just start turning something over and over in your mind. You're not really getting anywhere. You're not solving a problem. You're just kind of driving yourself crazy thinking of something over and over again.

Author and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley is an expert on forest bathing.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley
Author and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley is an expert on forest bathing.

"And ruminative thinking can lead to anxiety and depression. I find if I start to do that myself, if I start to ruminate, I go out in Rock Creek Park (in D.C.). I walk along the creek. I see a great blue heron fishing. I feel the wind in the trees. I see the clouds above, and that negative thought pattern just dissolves."

Fisher-Hobbs has had similar experiences.

"I kind of envision all of this fresh air that's being created around me as just clearing away the stress and the negative thoughts," she said, "and I just envision that as I'm walking. Plus, the air is so much nicer. You see such beautiful things, right? So your eyes are pleasured."

As we walked down the trail, slowly, like snails, breathing in the warm, summer air, our eyes were pleasured by a truly beautiful thing: a bald eagle’s nest perched amid the tree canopy. In that moment, the workday worries truly did seem to dissolve.

Of course, worry is nothing new. Neither is shinrin-yoku. However, both Fisher-Hobbs and Choukas-Bradley said the practice has special resonance now, when society, in general — and college campuses, in particular — seem so reft by social, political and technological upheaval.

UWF professor Chasidy Fisher-Hobbs is helping to promote the practice of forest bathing on the university's forested, 1,600-acre campus.
University of West Florida
UWF professor Chasidy Fisher-Hobbs is helping to promote the practice of forest bathing on the university's forested, 1,600-acre campus.

"I think forest bathing is one of the best remedies for what we're all going through at this particular moment in time," Choukas-Bradley said, "... I tell people, think of the airplane mode setting on your phone as forest bathing mode. And when you go out in nature, go into forest bathing mode with your phone and really try to take a break. Take a break from the bad news. Take a break from the conflict. Take a break from the worry about climate change and our very democracy."

In her writings, Choukas-Bradley argues that everyone should have what she calls a “wild home.”

"Something I encourage everybody to do is to find a wild home and really spend a lot of time going back to a place again and again through the seasons and all times of day and all times of weather," she said. "You get to know the place so intimately. You form a relationship with the place very much like your relationships with other people."

Fisher-Hobbs hopes that the trails at UWF can be that wild home — for both her college campus and the surrounding community.

"I think that having this trail that is on campus is much more accessible than going up to a state forest where folks that aren't comfortable in nature might be very uncomfortable," she said.

Choukas-Bradley said she hoped more people would adopt the practice.

"We're surrounded by so much beauty and so much life," she said, "and when we forest bathe, we feel a part of it. I think as people, we feel very separate from nature a lot. And there's a lot of pain associated with that. When you go out and just let yourself be part of the day, let yourself be part of whatever weather is around you, whatever's going on with the trees, with the birds, with the water. Just let yourself be part of it. It's extremely healing."

Copyright 2024 WUWF

T.S. Strickland