100 WVIA Way
Pittston, PA 18640

Phone: 570-826-6144
Fax: 570-655-1180

Copyright © 2024 WVIA, all rights reserved. WVIA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Healing Power of Nature: The Rise of "Forest-Bathing"

Erica L. Shames/WVIA News

One of the most powerful ways to lower anxiety, improve mood, and boost the immune system, numerous studies show, is to walk in nature — specifically, walk slowly in nature, or forest-bathe.

State officials seem to be focusing on ways to experience forest-bathing, not to mention a wealth of other outdoor opportunities. The goal of Pennsylvania’s Statewide 2020-2024 Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan or SCORP, subtitled “Recreation for All,” is to help Pennsylvanians gain greater access to and enjoyment from experiences in the commonwealth’s abundance of local and state parks, state and national forests, trails, rivers, lakes, game lands, and other recreation spaces.

Outlined in the plan are various methods to accomplish this goal, arising out of input from 36 state agencies and organizations focused on the outdoors, recreation, history, health, land utilization, senior citizens, multi-cultural and LGBTQ groups, and more.

Corey Ellison, Executive Director of The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, sees the greenway’s 500-mile corridor of parks, trails, and communities along the Susquehanna River within Pennsylvania as an undiscovered resource that can benefit everyone.

“The greenway is looking to grow new [trail] segments and new boat launches to increase access,” said Ellison. “The SCORP’s focus on outdoor recreation for all - making sure Pennsylvanians have a trail or access within 10 to 15 minutes of their home – in and of itself gives us some momentum to help fulfill our vision.”

What once was a hard sell—drawing a line between recreation and health—became easier as a result of the pandemic, Ellison adds.

“It’s become a lot more clear to people just how important easily accessible, free, open space is to both their health as well as community health and wellbeing,” she said.

Nancy Gates, assistant program manager for Dauphin County Parks and Recreation in the Harrisburg area, implemented the RX series of programs on health and the outdoors in Detwiler and Wildwood parks utilizing a grant from Highmark Blue Shield. Along with outdoor walks and programs on plants, art, yoga, and meditation, programming included four opportunities to forest-bathe, some led by Suzann Schiemer. She's one of a handful of certified Forest Therapy Guides in Pennsylvania credentialed through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT).

Erica L. Shames / WVIA News

“Our RX series dovetails nicely into what the state is trying to do,” said Gates. “We started out with 50 programs last year and [ended up with] 119—almost all were held outside. We’re just really trying to make it an interesting and integral part of their healthy and normal lifestyle plan.”

Schiemer also facilitates forest-bathing opportunities in state parks, under the auspices of DCNR’s Bureau of State Parks, including Sinnemahoning’s Women in the Wild weekend in February and Black Moshannon’s Wild Women weekend in the spring (see resources at the end of the article). Schiemer was also hired to train BSP employees in the art of forest-bathing, another nod to the state’s growing emphasis on the discipline.

Why it matters

Forest-bathing is an emerging aspect of wellness. It encourages us to utilize our senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and feel to absorb the tangible and imperceptible benefits of being in the natural world. The idea came from Japan, where forest-bathing, or shinrin-yoku, has been practiced since the 1980s as part of a national health program designed to reduce stress in an overworked populace.

Schiemer, a former Bloomsburg Area School District elementary physical education and middle school health education teacher, is excited about the possibilities forest-bathing offers.

“I’ve always been invested in this. How do we stay well? How do we teach children to be well? That’s my background, traveling around and learning from some really dynamic people in the field and doing hard research.”

Erica L. Shames / WVIA News

Most recently, Schiemer took the forest-bathing concept to Bucknell University’s Institute of Lifelong Learning (BILL). Merging the disciplines of academic and experiential learning, her “Wellness Naturally: More than a Walk in the Woods” course explores the many wellness benefits available through spending time in a natural environment. It was so well received, Schiemer developed Wellness Naturally 2.0, which debuted in BILL’s Spring 2023 course offerings.

“In 2.0, we get to dive deeper into the subject of natural wellness by looking at four themes: the benefits of being on, in, beside or under the water; wisdom of the wild, or spiritual wellness; the concept of a sit spot; and subject matter for the fourth class is to be determined,” said Schiemer.

Learning curve

Schiemer first learned of forest-bathing in 2016 with the publication of the UK book, Green Exercise. A chapter on forest-bathing in Japan, written by Dr. Qing Li, one of the world’s leading experts on forest-bathing, led her to seek out Dr. Li’s book, Forest-Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, when it was published in 2018.

“It was good research,” she said of the book. “Not just anecdotal. It was someone who said, let’s take the portable EKGs and the MRIs out in the field and see what’s happening [when people walk in nature]. I was intrigued.”

It wasn’t until 2017 that Schiemer had her first forest-bathing experience. A year later she became certified in forest therapy through ANFT, or Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. According to the ANFT web site, a Forest Therapy Guide facilitates safe, gentle walks, following the ANFT Standard Sequence, providing voluntary “invitations” for sensory opening activities. With each sensory opening activity, a question is asked—what did yo notice, for example—encouraging greater awareness and mindfulness.

“When I look at the dimension of wellness, which has evolved over the years, the part that is so powerful is that forest-bathing or nature-based wellness is probably the best avenue to achieving holistic wellness,” explains Schiemer. “When you decide to practice forest-bathing, you have that opportunity to enhance that part of you that might not be [enhanced] in a typical gym—or typically other activities that people do for wellness.”

Schiemer was trained in forest therapy by Nadine Mazzola, a thought leader in the field and one of the first people in New England to be ANFT certified as a Forest Therapy Guide. Mazzola turned to forest-bathing to boost her immune system while recovering from breast cancer in 2015.

Erica L. Shames / WVIA News

“I really had this kind of separation anxiety,” she said, following the completion of treatment. “How am I gonna know I’m okay? How am I gonna support my immune system? During treatment it’s all about white blood cells and how’s your immune system doing today. When I was reading about forest-bathing, one of the big things was reading about the immune benefits. That particularly resonated with me—that I could support these NK cells, these white blood cells.”

Within a month of reading about forest-bathing, Mazzola started ANFT training. Upon earning her certification, Mazzola went to work building a relationship with the land, building her own practice of being outside, and developing a close relationship with a sense of place—all while creating a business around forest therapy. She founded New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting, and works as a mentor/advisor for ANFT. She guides regularly for the New England Botanical Garden and other local conservation organizations, and she does team building events for businesses. She also consults and
provides private or group forest-bathing workshops, and speaks to groups about the benefits of forest-bathing.

Erica L. Shames / WVIA News

Most recently, Mazzola leaned into the concept of forest-bathing with her dog, Juliet, and wrote the award-winning book, Forest-Bathing with Your Dog, in 2019.

“It turns out this kind of relaxed sensory time for our dogs is really important,” she said. “Just like ourselves, dogs are active all the time, and we’re constantly giving them something to do. It causes anxiety. Having this space and time to just wander and sit and restore and be in our senses really resets us, and resets our dogs.”

The backstory

The benefits of forest-bathing are numerous. Dr. Li’s book elevated the concept of forest-bathing from a feeling to a science. According to Dr. Li, associate professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, when people started to practice shinrin-yoku, it was based only on common sense and the intuitive idea that being in the forests of Japan would be good for us. In 2004 that scientific investigation of the link between forests and human health began in earnest when Dr. Li helped found the Forest Therapy Study Group.

On the Japanese island of Iiyama, home to some of the most beautiful and unspoiled forests in Japan, scientific inquiry led to the discovery that forest-bathing can achieve a wealth of health benefits, including: boosting the immune system; increasing energy; decreasing anxiety, depression, and anger; reducing stress and bringing about a state of relaxation; lowering blood pressure and increasing heart rate variability.

Based on a subsequent forest-bathing study in April 2006, Iiyama became the first location in Japan to receive forest therapy certification. There are now 62 certified forest therapy sites in Japan, where between 2.5 and 5 million people walk forest trails every year.

Why do trees impart this positive effect on our health? One reason is phytoncides, the plant chemicals emitted by trees—especially fir trees—as a protection against bacteria, insects, and fungi. Researchers say when we breathe in phytoncides, good things happen: decreased levels of stress hormones; increased sleep; decreased tension, anxiety, anger, hostility, fatigue, and confusion; and lower blood pressure and heart
rate. One study at the Department of Psychiatry at Mie University in Japan demonstrated that the citrus fragrance of the phytoncide D-limonen is more effective than anti-depressants for lifting mood and ensuring emotional wellbeing in patients with mental-health disorders.

Another benefit of forest-bathing, according to various experts, is that it impacts our immune system. The strength of the immune system can be measured by examining the activity of our natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells, a type of white blood cell, can attack and kill unwanted cells—tumor cells or those infected with a virus. They do this in
conjunction with anti-cancer proteins perforin, granulysin, and granzymes. People with higher NK activity show a lower incidence of disease, including cancer.

In the first forest-bathing study Dr. Li undertook in Iiyama, he found that after three days and two nights in the forest, NK cell activity increased from 17.3 percent to 26.5 percent—a 53.2 percent increase. The presence of anti-cancer protein granulysin was up by 48 percent, granzyme A by 39 percent, granzyme B by 33 percent, and perforin by 28 percent. One forest-bathing experience a month is enough to maintain a high level of NK cell activity, says Dr. Li.

Shinrin-yoku is not exercise, in the traditional sense. It involves simply being in and connecting with nature. An entire forest-bathing walk, typically two to three hours in length, often covers no more than a quarter-mile. On forest therapy walks, people have a wide range of experiences, some of which they feel are significant, even profound. Through forest-bathing, people's own senses help them access nature’s medicine:
hearing the wind rustling through the trees and birds chattering in the background; touching the texture of tree bark, leaves or grasses; smelling phytoncides in the air; and seeing the beauty of varying colors of green plants and blue sky.

When we open up our senses, we begin to connect to the natural world, Dr. Li says. And when we are in harmony with the natural world, we can begin to heal.

How does it work?

We can forge a relationship with nature, even in winter. M. Amos Clifford, founder of ANFT, offers many ideas in his book, A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku. One option accessible to anyone involves choosing a dedicated sit spot—one you can visit frequently and without too much effort. This can be outdoors, indoors in front of a large picture window—even on your front porch. Your goal is to visit daily, and sit quietly so birds and animals nearby get used to you. After a few weeks, animals will become more accepting of your presence, allowing you to observe their natural behavior. Visit at different times of
day and night to watch stories unfold: birds arguing; squirrels scurrying to gather food; hawks circling overhead.

For people interested in trying an organized forest-bathing walk, Mazzola recommends going out with a forest therapy guide.

“Being guided is a real treat,” she explains. “You can just relax and be led, be guided. You’re in the camaraderie of a group of people. That really enhances the experience.”

Schiemer leads a diverse range of public and private forest therapy walks for children and adults.

“I’ve led people who initially don’t want to be on the walk,” she said. “Sometimes parents sign them up and they are the most enlightening because you get to watch how they change—how they might be very resistant and by the end they’re saying the most intellectually wise things, even though they’re 10, 11 or 12 years old. I’ve also worked with veterans, and that’s beautiful too.”

Upcoming Outdoor Experiences

Opportunities to experience a guided forest-bathing walk are increasing, in and around Pennsylvania. You can access a certified forest therapy guide for private forest-bathing events for friends and family at https://www.natureandforesttherapy.earth/guides. Public organized outdoor events are available throughout Pennsylvania.

Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.