Tip: A Japanese Method of Stress & Anxiety Control

Forest bathing sounds like something only naked hippies do, but now science backs up the practice. Read this to chill out.

Karoshi vs. Shinrin-Yoku

Back in the 1980s, the Japanese were stressed out. The cities were booming, the economy was flourishing, and competition was stiff. If you wanted to get ahead, or even keep your head above water, you had to work harder than the next 25,000 guys.

You'd go to work, grind all day and into the night, sleep in the office for four hours, and start again before sunrise. It was expected and even considered dishonorable not to do so.

Not surprisingly, a new word soon entered the lexicon: "karoshi." It means death by overwork. Luckily, not long after, an old word resurfaced: "shinrin-yoku" – forest bathing.

Forest bathing is simply spending time in the woods, with a few rules. It's a type of nature therapy and hugely popular in modern-day Japan. Science has even started to take a closer look at the practice.

To "take a bath" in the forest, you just find yourself some nature, leave your phone in the car, and go wandering. Dr. Qing Lim, says:

"This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It's simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch... It doesn't matter if you do not get anywhere. You are not going anywhere."

The idea is to "let the forest in." Take deep breaths, listen, touch trees, explore, or just sit quietly. And the weather doesn't matter. Different seasons stimulate the senses in new ways. Dr. Lim recommends two-hour "baths" whenever you get the chance.

There's a lot of crunchy-granola language in this field of study, but don't let that throw you off. Practitioners claim that the sense of calming relaxation reduces stress and allows you to connect with nature and "cross the bridge to happiness."

But multiple scientific studies seem to support the practice too. Here's a summary:

  • Studies using blood tests show that two-hour shinrin-yoku sessions significantly increase the numbers of NK (natural killer) cells. That's a good thing. NK cells are part of the innate immune system, like T cells. They kill virally infected cells and can even detect and control early signs of cancer, partly due to the induction of intracellular anti-cancer proteins.
  • Forest baths decrease the scores for depression, fatigue, and anxiety while also increasing vigor. Studies show that urinary adrenaline after forest bathing decreases (that's basically stress reduction). City-walking, by the way, typically has the opposite effect.
  • Another study showed that forest bathing and general exposure to nature expands space perception which in turn reduces impulsive decision-making. Making impulsive decisions has long been associated with stress, anxiety, and reduced feelings of well-being.

And although not mentioned in the studies, it's easy to make the deductive leap and say that impulsive decision making doesn't exactly bode well with making good nutrition choices.

When it comes to fitness, we know that excess stress slams the brakes on everything from muscle gain to fat loss. A certain workout and diet plan can work great if you're not stressed, but the very same plan won't work at all if you're under crushing stress. As T Nation contributor Dr. Jade Teta says, "The metabolism is nothing but one big stress barometer." (See: How to Train Your Metabolism.)

According to the EPA, Americans spend 93 percent of their time indoors. Back in the day, not many people needed to make time to purposefully exercise because their daily life WAS exercise. Today, not so much. So we go to the gym to make up for the lack of physical labor.

Should we adopt that same approach when it comes to nature? Does a bear shit in the woods? (Go find out.)

  1. Li Q et al. Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2007 Apr-Jun;20(2 Suppl 2):3-8. PubMed.
  2. Li Q et al. Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:2587381. PubMed.
  3. Repke MA et al. How does nature exposure make people healthier?: Evidence for the role of impulsivity and expanded space perception. PLoS One. 2018 Aug 22;13(8):e0202246. PubMed.
  4. Li Q. "Forest Bathing" Is Great for Your Health. Here's How to Do It. Time. May 1, 1018.
Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram