Forest Therapy Shows Promise as a Well-Being Practice

A person stands with the back to the camera in a wooded area

Extensive scientific research now supports the idea that spending time in nature has positive impacts on our physical and mental health. Forest therapy builds on this idea to offer the healing benefits of nature in a more intentional way. While going for a walk or working near a window with a view of greenspace can have important, but often inadvertent, effects on our well-being, forest therapy is different in that it is a professionally-guided experience designed to harness the most powerful aspects of exposure to nature.

A garden path is lined with many trees and rocks

Forest therapy is based on the practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing which originated in Japan in the 1980s. Research on shinrin-yoku shows that it is associated with reduced stress, longer attention span, improved immune system function, and better mood. In fact, participants in one study showed positive impacts to their cortisol levels for several weeks after a forest bathing experience. Forest therapy combines an exposure to natural settings with meditative practices to help ground participants in the present moment and promote mindfulness. Like many therapeutic practices, forest therapy is not a magical one-time solution to long-term problems like stress, anxiety, or depression. Instead, forest therapy requires ongoing commitment to regular engagement and practice. Forest therapy is also not a replacement for other forms of mental and physical health care. In many cases forest therapy is effective as a complementary practice that supports health outcomes related to other methods of care.

A young boy is visible through the leaves of trees

A new review of forest therapy research suggests that there are a wide range of forest therapy experiences that can be meaningful and beneficial for participants. The review focused specifically on forest therapy trails, which involve movement through greenspace along pre-determined pathways. The authors of the review found that both brief, cursory experiences and longer more engaged activity-based experiences could be valuable forms of forest therapy. Similarly, scientific research shows that the outcomes of forest therapy can also be varied. Some studies demonstrate measurable health benefits like decreased blood pressure while others focus on shifts in mood or the perceived benefits of forest therapy. Despite these positive outcomes, there are also many barriers to participation in forest therapy including proximity to greenspace, access to and affordability of trained forest therapy guides, and availability of free time. Therefore, future research should focus on ways to reduce barriers and make forest therapy an accessible well-being practice for anyone who wants to participate.

A child walks down a path, exploring nature.

Forest therapy is a relatively new practice as a formalized method of self-care. The idea that spending intentional time outdoors promotes well-being, however, has been around for centuries. We need to both explore the benefits of forest therapy through modern scientific approaches and recognize the many communities who have been participating in similar practices for generations. With this in mind, forest therapy shows promise as a method to connect with nature in a meaningful way and promote physical and mental health. While forest therapy is often marketed to adults, creating space in youth programs for immersive natural experiences and outdoor mindfulness activities could have valuable results for the mental and physical well-being of young people. As we learn more about rising rates of depression and anxiety among youth, we need to start being more intentional about reconnecting youth people with nature through therapeutic outdoor experiences in addition to more traditional challenge- and risk-based models.