Can a Walk in the Woods Improve Your Well-Being?

Exploring the physiological, psychological, and cognitive effects of nature.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

Jessica Koehler
Source: Jessica Koehler

"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees." —Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau and other literary giants of the past eloquently pronounced the positive effects of spending time in nature. While their anecdotal notions were profound, scientists are now empirically investigating their assumptions.

Despite growing evidence for the numerous benefits of spending time in nature, reports indicate that most Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors. Increasingly, people across the globe are struggling with various physiological, mental health, and higher-order cognitive issues, and practitioners are searching for realistic, evidence-based interventions for those suffering.

Therefore, it is essential to investigate treatments that imply time in nature has positive effects on well-being. Could a simple walk in the woods make us happier and healthier? Beyond the physiological and mental impact, can spending time in nature possibly influence higher-order cognitive processes?

Forest Bathing

Urban lifestyles are related to negative emotionalities, such as feelings of panic, anxiety, and depression. Nonetheless, the migration toward urban living over the past several decades has increased. Because of this conundrum, scientists are investigating whether humans can counteract the harmful effects of urban life by reconnecting with nature.

In transcontinental Japan and China, an abundance of research supports the practice of Shinrin-Yoku, also known more widely as forest bathing. This traditional Japanese practice involves immersing oneself in nature for recreation to enhance overall well-being. The goal is to use all five senses to experience one's natural surroundings mindfully. First described by the Japanese forest service in 1982, Shinrin-Yoku refers to taking in the forest atmosphere. 

Jessica Koehler
Source: Jessica Koehler

What Do We Know About Forest Bathing?

A growing foundation of literature supports the wide-ranging health benefits of exposure to natural environments. Over the past decade, a proliferation of studies provides information regarding the physiological, psychological, and higher-order cognitive effects of connecting with natural environments.

In South Korea, forest therapy is officially designated by law as immune-strengthening and health-promoting activities using varied elements of the forest, such as fragrance and scenic view.

Physiological Effects of Forest Bathing

Numerous studies indicate a relationship between forest bathing and positive physical health outcomes. In early 2020, Chia-Pin and Hsieh provided an extensive overview of these effects, but the most notable are as follows:

  • Reduced pulse rate
  • Improvements in the cardiovascular system
  • Changes in the presence of anti-cancer proteins
  • Improvements in the respiratory system (allergies and respiratory diseases)
  • Decreased sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) activity
  • Increased parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) activity
  • Improved immune functioning (increase in natural killer cells/cancer prevention)

Mental Health Effects of Forest Bathing

One of the most well-documented beneficial effects of forest therapy is a significant reduction in overall stress feelings. According to numerous empirical studies, additional positive mental health outcomes related to forest bathing include the following:

  • Reduction in the stress hormone cortisol
  • Decreased feelings of anxiousness
  • Improved overall mood
  • Reduction of depressive feelings
  • Increased positive outlook toward everyday life

Higher-Order Cognitive Effects of Forest Bathing

Scientific studies have shown numerous cognitive benefits derived from spending time in nature, including improved directed attention, increased attentional capacity, and increased cognitive flexibility. Improved memory is also a measured effect found within the forest bathing literature.

Beyond attention, cognitive flexibility, and memory, researchers recently investigated the potential effects of forest therapy on creativity. In 2012, Atchley et al. applied a test of remote associations—a broadly used measure of creativity and problem-solving—to determine if four days of exposure to nature would alter participants' creative thinking. The results of the Atchley et al. study indicated there was a 50 percent increase in scores on the Remote Associates Test (RAT) following the nature exposure, suggesting that time in nature enhances creative abilities.

More recently, Chia-Pin Yu and Hsuan Hsieh investigated the cognitive effects of a three-day forest therapy workshop by administering the RAT to participants before and after attending the workshop. The workshop aimed to improve participants' well-being via various sensory and therapeutic activities in nature, such as sitting and observing the forest, meditation outside, listening to running water, viewing flowers, and aromatherapy. The results indicated that individuals who participated in the study had a significant increase in scores on the RAT, with the average post-test score being 23.74 percent higher than the average score before the workshop.

While their study could be improved with a control group, the results suggest a promising direction for more rigorous future research on forest therapy.

How Does Forest Bathing Improve Well-Being?

Bathing all five senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing—puts our minds into a place of calm and reduced distraction. The intentional minimization of attentional interruption allows us to activate the brain's Default Mode Network. Activation of this system permits the executive functioning areas—the command and control center—to rest and recharge.

Increased feelings of awe while spending time in nature also likely contribute to the higher-order improvements in cognitive functioning and enhanced creativity. For more information about awe's transformative power, please see my previous article, "Inspire Your Mind."

Jessica Koehler
Source: Jessica Koehler

Final Thoughts

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." —John Muir

Perhaps the most well-known of all naturalists, John Muir's insightful words from the early 20th century are supported by scientific evidence of the 21st century.

Taking a walk in the woods and bathing in nature positively affects mental and physical health and higher-order cognitive processes like creativity. Since creativity is being hailed as a future currency, we should consider connecting with nature as a potential key to human progress.

Breaking away from mentally draining modern life to bond with natural surroundings may improve overall health at a time when ailments are overwhelming our daily lives. From planned vacations in the mountains to short breaks in nearby parks and green spaces, our modern brains can utilize nature interruptions to improve physical and mental health and ignite cognitive processes that may spark innovation.

For more information regarding the science behind forest bathing, see these resources from the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.