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What is Forest Bathing?

Travel & Nature Therapy: Shinrin-Yoku/Forest Bathing

“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise…I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
~Henry David Thoreau, “Walking.”

Montana ranks 44th in population size, but this allows us to be leaders in another way—in our access to nature. The Ranch itself is mid-way between America’s first National Park, Yellowstone and the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park. Montanans love having a homestead and venturing out into our vast public lands. It seems the more wide open spaces you see, the more you crave them.

Photo by Caleb Lee

Conversely, the world in general is growing ever more industrialized. Eighty-two percent of North Americans live in an urban setting. With that number projected to grow, scientists are studying the unforeseen physical and mental cost of moving away from natural settings. At the same time the research mounts, we’ve spent the better part of 2017 developing programs that help guests connect with our natural setting, from Montana naturalist classes to Nat Geo narrative photography lessons to natural play environments in the Little Grizzlies Kids Club and natural movement and forest bathing The Spa at Rock Creek classes.

This week we look at the role of nature in restoring mental and physical health, as well as society’s skepticism toward nature therapy and the power of vacations to get us out of our routine and try new things.

The Benefits & Consequences of Stress

One thing both rural and urban residents can agree on is that most generations, young and old, are ever more connected through smart phones and other devices. But digital stimulation and 24-hour work and news cycles often lead to overstimulation. When we’re overstimulated, our bodies respond by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

Stress is a very valuable biological response. It is to thank when we escape danger and might have a hand in acing a test, winning a race or landing a job after an intense interview. Our bodies release these hormones to help us cope with predators and aggressors.

The ropes course at The Ranch at Rock Creek has features 17 high features and 13 low features
Exercise, like on our ropes course, is one of the positive ways you can stress your body to improve endurance and strength. 

According to Mayo Clinic, “Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.”

These hormones can also be extremely harmful if overused. “Long term activation of the stress-response system…can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” Overstress can put you at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain and concentration impairment. Everyone from children to adults is subject to these effects.

Preventing & Treating Chronic Stress Outside

In the Western world, our approach has generally been to medicate when anxiety or illness becomes unmanageable. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea have invested 30 years of research into a different and preventive approach—nature therapy.

A grove of aspen trees lines Rock Creek, a Blue Ribbon trout stream that runs through The Ranch at Rock Creek
One of The Ranch at Rock Creek’s aspen groves.

Researchers are now starting to believe that nature can compete with anti-anxiety pills as a salvo for the nervous system. As Japanese and Korean populations became more urbanized, over-worked and over-stressed, they found health problems rising. One branch of research specifically looked into the benefits of forest trails and a kind of forest therapy they termed “shinrin-yoku.” The results of the findings have been compelling.

By gathering biometrics before, during and after forest walks, scientists determined “that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”

Parasympathetic nerve activity is an unconscious nervous system response, and, when triggered, it helps restore normal function in the body. Generally, the benefits of forest therapy are most profound before a mental or physical crisis. Results have shown that it has power to curb chronic stress, but the frontiers of that research are even more intriguing. The body’s response may also allow it to improve immune response in the long term.

Researchers like Qing Li, an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School are researching how these benefits can be manifested in the immune system. He studies “natural killer immune cells (NK).” NK cells are a type of white blood cell that works to protect us from disease by rejecting tumor and virus-infected cells.

Over the course of Li’s study, middle-aged businessmen spent a couple of hours each morning hiking in the woods. By the end of their three-day experiment their NK cells had increased by 40 percent and stayed that way for seven days. The NK count was still elevated by 15 percent a month after the experiment. Further study has suggested that this is due to the phytoncides, or tree smells that come from evergreens and other trees.

30 years of research was enough to prompt action in Japan. They currently have 48 official forest therapy trails, with hopes to designate 100 sites within 10 years. A small number of Japanese physicians have even been certified in forest medicine.

Modern Forest Bathing

Despite the Japanese research, Western government agencies and medical schools are unlikely to start prescribing walks in the woods to curb stress anytime soon. It’s up to private individuals who find themselves or their families prone to the effects of overstimulation and stress to try it out. But shinrin-yoku is finding a home in nature spas and holistic wellness medical practices. Most often people are able to try it on vacation in the wilderness like at The Ranch at Rock Creek.

The accepted Western translation for shinrin-yoku is “forest bathing.” If you’ve ever heard this term before and scoffed, you wouldn’t be the first. It seems we are born lovers and cynics when it comes to nature. In Florence Williams’ book “The Nature Fix” she explains that people generally perceived the value of time in nature to be less helpful than it really is.

Quoting Trent University in Ontario Psychologist Elizabeth Nisbet, she said, “Students (study participants) consistently underestimated how good they’d feel outside. Social scientists call these bad predictions ‘forecasting errors.’ Unfortunately, they play a big role in how people make decisions about how to spend their time.”

Basically, our skeptical nature may keep us from trying or appreciating what might be one of the simplest solutions for stress relief. It might be what makes nature therapy during vacation such a good option. On vacation, we also lose track of our to-do list and open up to self-care, stress relief and relaxation. And while Japanese forest bathing usually requires a half-day or day-long excursion to find a forest therapy trail, when on vacation at The Ranch you are just a few minutes’ walk from a forest trail.

Granite Spa Manager Karen Piacquadio leads two guests on a forest bathing excursion through a snowy fall landscape
A forest bathing group starts their journey on a snowy fall morning. Forest bathing is offered year-round at The Ranch.

The Spa at Rock Creek’s Forest Bathing Practice

Though exercise and leisure time in the outdoors is at the crux of what we do as an all-inclusive, experiential destination, the goal of The Spa at Rock Creek was to impart other aspects of nature therapy as a healing complement to outdoor adventure.

Forest bathing was a researched and inspired choice, due to our own extensive forest lands and proximity to National Forest land. Within only a few minutes walk on The Ranch’s pedestrian and biking trails, guests can become immersed in nature. In fact, guests are encouraged to walk and bike in place of vehicular transportation.

Nature immersion, in Japan and on The Ranch, is at the heart of forest bathing, seeking to use the environment to tap into our senses and parasympathetic response to reduce stress and regain normal function. For someone in desperate need of a vacation, it might be the best possible way to unplug and tap into a period of renewal during their getaway.

This mind & body class is not exercise, but an integrative nature and wellness experience based on sensory input. In an overly visual, screen-based society, other senses can get drowned out over time. Typically, guests walk into the forest behind the spa to start the session. In total, they will end up walking less than a mile, since we consciously slow down and try to be present in nature.


Just like in meditation and many forms of yoga and pilates, deep, mindful breathing is employed throughout. The American Institute of Stress  notes that deep breathing is essential to trigger a relaxation response. Deep breathing also employs the sense of smell, which activate the forest scents that are especially good at increasing NK immune cells.

Our meditations change depending on the season and the current weather. It gives guests a sense of youth and timelessness — feelings that may not have been felt for some time. Children, many of whom rely on screen-based visual cues, can learn the value of natural play and connect to subtle environmental messages.

An instructor might help a guest tune into sounds of nature, like the burbling of Rock Creek or birds chirping, as useful as a mantra or chanting for calming a body attuned to constant city noise. Touch can be retooled from tapping and swiping through cool stones, warm earth or textured plants.

Photo by Tyler McBride

Taste can be reawakened simply by relaxing. The parasympathetic response is often called the “rest and digest” response. It sends signals to relax, enjoy a slower paced meal and digest—meaning that food often tastes better in the outdoors or right after time outside. One of the end goals is rebalancing reliance on the senses so you can employ them in all that you do during a vacation and return to everyday life ready to employ this equilibrium.

Dining in the middle of a beautiful landscape is one of the simple pleasures available at the world's only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star ranch
Photo by Lynn Donaldson.

Travel & Nature Therapy

There are takeaways from forest therapy research that nearly everyone can incorporate into their lives. Adopting a routine of visiting parks and wooded areas, where you can walk slowly and breathe deeply, can reduce stress in your daily life. Diffusing pine and cypress essential oils into the home can also release phytoncides that help reduce stress.

When author of “The Nature Fix,” Florence Williams asked researcher Quing Li what to bring home from his research, he responded, “If you have time for vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month.”

The Ranch at Rock Creek features luxury camping, known as glamping in Montana

Not every vacation need be for stress relief, but when chronic stress has taken hold and you need a safe haven, trade digital connection for a deeper connection with mother nature. One of the most compelling new ways to do this is to try forest bathing.


For more comprehensive information about forest bathing research, read Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix.