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The mental health benefits of ‘forest bathing’

The walks aren’t focused on the act of walking exactly, but more on observing and interacting with nature.

Forest bathing
Forest bathing emphasizes the healing power of nature.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Three hours in the woods: Young adulthood is a time of challenges, but for the group of Minneapolis Community and Technical College students that accompanied counselor Jamal Adam on a guided forest therapy walk earlier this spring, the idea of 180 phone-free minutes with nothing but nature for distraction felt hard to fathom.

Challenges aside, the 24 students were there of their own free will: They’d signed up for a walk in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, a quiet, wooded 15-acre plot in Minneapolis’ Theodore Wirth Park.

Adam, a thoughtful man who counsels many of the student walkers, felt that the guided adventure, led by David Motzenbecker, a Minneapolis-based certified forest therapy guide, would likely have a positive impact on the participants’ mental health.  But he wasn’t sure how they’d react.

“The population I work with at Minneapolis College, they are mostly young and urban,” Adam said. “They don’t have much exposure to nature in their free time. Often they are looking at a screen and going through their life, work and school. They’re busy. This kind of thing isn’t something they’re all that comfortable with.”

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To tell the truth, Adam himself wasn’t all that comfortable with the concept of spending a big chunk of his day, as he put it, “Staring at trees.”

“It was a threehour walk,” said Adam, a lifelong urbanite who grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia. “Everyone, including myself, thought, ‘What will be doing for three hours?’ Honestly, we were worried about it.”

But the guided walk, based on the Japanese tradition of Shinrin Yoku, or “forest bathing,” turned out to be more than enough to keep the Minneapolis College group interested and occupied.

“Within first 10 minutes I lost track of time,” Adam said. “I was not thinking about work or all the things that bounce around in my head all the time. I was deeply in it. And when it was over, I felt so relaxed and centered.”

The same could be said for Adam’s companions.

During the walk “Nobody was looking at their phone,” he said. “It had a calming impact on them, a peace. I don’t remember the last time I was not worrying about the past or being anxious about what I am going to do today. Being in the present moment for three hours was quite an experience. Every student who participated — all of them — had the same positive reaction.”

Adam and his students aren’t the first group that Motzenbecker has taken forest bathing. A landscape architect and aficionado of Japanese design and culture, he stepped away from his firm a little over a year ago to focus on forest therapy. In the last 12 months, he’s led some 128 people on 25 walks in the woods.

“Some walks are one person,” Motzenbecker explained. “Some walks are 20 people. Each walk is different, but the focus is the same: Getting out into the woods and soaking in the positive mental health benefits.”

Bathing in nature

Forest bathing emphasizes the healing power of nature. First developed in Japan in the 1980s as a way to combat extreme stress and rising suicide rates among overburdened workers, it has become a cornerstone of the country’s preventative health and healing practices. In recent years, the practice has made its way to the United States.

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On a guided Shinrin-Yoku walk, participants take a leisurely stroll on wooded paths under a forest canopy, mindfully observing the sights, sounds and smells of nature. This seems like a simple concept, but it has significant impact: There is a robust body of research that demonstrates the physical and mental health benefits of forest bathing.

Motzenbecker, who is certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides, felt particularly inspired by studies that showed how even a brief time spent in nature can lower human anxiety.

In Japan, he said, “researchers did these studies where they took people into the woods and walked for 20 minutes and then they walked in an urban environment for 20 minutes.” After each walk, Motzenbecker said, participants’ stress-hormone levels were measured: “In every instance, when people went into the woods, their stress hormone was down significantly, around 16 percent, when compared to the same reading after a walk in the city.”

David Motzenbecker
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
David Motzenbecker
Another study looked at forest bathing’s impact on the immune system.

Researchers broke participants into three groups, Motzenbecker explained. “One was all women. One was all men. One was mixed genders. They took the groups out a two-hour-plus nature walks and then they measured their cancer-killing white blood cells. After the walk, their [white-blood-cell] count went up by almost 50 percent over their baseline. Depending on a person’s physiology, it stayed there for a week or a month afterwards.”

And it’s not just the good feelings that come from being around trees that make humans healthier, Motzenbecker added: Trees contain powerful immune-boosters.

“The compounds that boost the human immune system are emitted by trees,” he said. “They are called phytoncides. They are the tree’s own immune system. They fight off fungi that attack a tree. Trees emit phytoncides into the air, and they boost our immune systems, too. It’s that woodsy scent that you smell after a rain in the woods.”

Results like this reconfirmed Motzenbecker’s decision to focus on forest therapy. He’d always felt a deep connection to nature, and now he saw that there was science that backed that up. He built a website, began advertising his walks on Airbnb, through local event calendars and word of mouth. He was a man on a mission.

“We’ve systematically and exponentially disconnected ourselves from nature in less than 300 years after millions and millions of years existing alongside it,” he said. “It’s not good for us, and I want to change that.”

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What happens on a forest bath

Don’t bring your Fitbit forest bathing. Motzenbecker explained that the walks aren’t focused on the act of walking exactly, but more on observing and interacting with nature.

“My walks are intentionally very low-impact,” Motzenbecker explained. “We will often only go a quarter- or maybe a half-mile in two or three hours. Because of that it’s great for a wide range of users.”

Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield is Motzenbecker’s favorite place for a walk in the city. “They’ve got multiple ecosystems there that you can wander through in this one space,” he said.

His walks all start and end the same, following a standard sequence developed by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides.

Forest bathing walks start off with invitations, rather than instructions.

“We call them ‘invitations,’” Motzenbecker explained, “because we like to invite people to do something. We’re not telling that they have to do something.” If a participant chooses not to take part in an activity, he said, “they can just go stare a tree. I’m not forcing anyone to participate. We’re very clear that there are no rules in forest bathing, there are no gold stars. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just be here in nature, absorb it, contemplate it.”

The invitation activities help participants bridge into the natural world from the bustle of the outside world.

“They are kind of a gateway into the liminal space of transformation,” Motzenbecker said. “You’re just slowing people down, getting them in touch with all their senses, getting them to pay attention in more minute detail to how they perceive the world through their senses. We try to encourage people to really slow down, which can be hard.”

The invitation activities are followed by a series of exercises that help participants deepen their interaction with nature.

“One of my favorites is what I call ‘follow the tweeter,’” Motzenbecker said. “I have people pick a comfortable spot and find a bird. And then I ask them to watch that bird until they can’t see it anymore.” Participants observe the bird until it disappears, and then find another to watch: “They just keep doing that for about 20 minutes and really pay attention to those birds and what they’re doing.”

Another activity that Motzenbecker likes to lead his groups in is called “water diamonds.”

“This is great if it is a sunny day and there’s water nearby,” he said. “I have people find a spot along the shoreline that’s comfortable I ask them to watch the sparkles on the water until they dissolve and then find another one. It is a hypnotic, contemplative act that allows people’s minds to go wherever they need them to go.”

Wood Lake Nature Center
Photo by Martha Garcés
Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield is Motzenbecker’s favorite place for a walk in the city. “They’ve got multiple ecosystems there that you can wander through in this one space,” he said.
These seemingly simple activities keep most participants occupied for a long time, Motzenbecker said. While the forest bathers are busy with their own thoughts, he begins to gather ingredients for a key part of the walk: The closing tea ceremony.

An important part of forest therapy guide training is learning about edible plants. Motzenbecker identifies and collects safe “tea plants” that he steeps in hot water for his walkers to enjoy.

“One of my favorites is a sumac tea, which is great,” Motzenbecker said. “If you’ve never had it, it tastes just like lemonade.”

He prepares for the closing tea by setting out a nice blanket with treats and cups. “I have people bring elements from the forest, if they are attracted to them and we decorate the blanket with those things,” he said. “It really connects them to the ceremony.”

Forest bathers speak

During the tea and closing, Motzenbecker invites forest bathers to share their experiences and observations. He’s always surprised by how open and forthcoming participants are about how this seemingly simple walk touched their minds and hearts.

Benjamin Lai, a general practice physician at the Mayo Clinic, moved to Minnesota in the fall of 2018. Looking for a way to learn more about his new state, he found Motzenbecker online, and joined a small group he was leading on a guided walk at Eloise Butler.

“I thought it would be something new for me to do, an opportunity to explore the area — and help me with my own anxiety and stress,” Lai said. “I also thought it could be something that could help my patients.”

Lai said that even though the walk wasn’t “very long in terms of distance, It was really absorbing.” He said that the close observation and quiet attention he used on the walk filled him with a sense of calm and focus that he brought back to his work in Rochester.

“I have taken away some of the techniques that David recommended from our walk,” Lai said. “I’ve applied it to some of my patient counseling.”

Greg Plotnikoff, founder and medical director of Minnesota Personalized Medicine, hired Motzenbecker to lead a group of his patients on a forest-bathing walk during an activity his clinic calls “Happiness Hours.”

“Every few months we do something different, something out-of-the-box in terms of ‘medicine,’ things that we would like people to know about and experience,” Plotnikoff said. “Forest bathing was one of our Happiness Hours. We had a couple dozen people participate. I got to experience this myself. It was like, ‘Wow. This is really cool.’”

Though Plotnikoff feared that some of his patients might be put off if forest bathing seemed too new-age-y, he said that Motzenbecker’s approach was welcoming and approachable, even for “people who would never consider doing a mindfulness program or had tried meditation and just couldn’t do it.”

Maybe it was the beautiful wildflower garden or the canopy of trees overhead, but Plotnikoff said that all of his patients — even the most cynical ones — said they felt moved by their experience.

“No one left early.  No one said, ‘This is BS’ and ran away,” Plotnikoff said. “The feedback was positive. They really enjoyed it. Patients told me they went in not knowing what to expect — and afterward they all reported having a good experience and would share it with others.”

Trees are nice

Adam said that he didn’t expect it, but just one session of forest bathing had a profound impact on the way he lives his life. It was the same for many of his students.

“Most of these students don’t spend much time in nature,” he said, “When they do, they go out are not there for themselves but for their Instagram followers.” During the forest therapy walk, participants were asked to turn off their phones. “None of them took pictures,” Adam said. “Most were fully in the present moment and not looking at their screen. They were experiencing nature.”

For some, the nature experience went beyond detached observation.

Before the walk began, one student told Adam she was concerned about getting muddy. “Within 20 minutes, I saw her taking off her shoes and walking on the ground,” he recalled. “She was fully present in the moment.”

For modern people who are often detached from nature, an invitation to closely observe and interact with the outside world opens new avenues of personal exploration and creativity, said Pamela Wirth, a certified forest therapy guide and mentor based in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“Being immersed in nature can really help us to open our perspective, to be much wider and have more access to our own higher intelligence. Life is simple for one-to-two hours. It can have a profound effect.”

For Adam, the profound effect of forest bathing was a greater sense of the natural world that surrounds him — even in the middle of the city.

“Having a connection with nature and being mindful about that makes us more resilient and gives us a peace of mind,” he said. “Being in nature and enjoying the present moment allows up to move away from being caught up in the past and what could go wrong in the future.”

Growing up, Adam said, “I never cultivated that way of being in nature.” Since he went on Motzenbecker’s nature therapy walk, he’s trying to bring more of the natural world into his life.

Last weekend, for instance, Adam said, “I went to Lake Harriet and walked for about seven miles. When I finished, I felt happier, more peaceful and centered. It was just what I needed.”