Trees by the Tub-full

Paul Hetzler

A hot bath is an age-old remedy for calming our nerves, but science has now shown that a better tonic for anxiety and stress is bathing in the forest, fully dressed. True story. Of course, a few details would be helpful.

In a blinding flash of the obvious, research has proven that being around trees makes us feel better. To be fair, the scientific process requires measurable evidence, so in this case, real-time brain imaging with fMRI and PET scans, as well as blood-cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure, were used in a host of studies which showed that being immersed in nature does us a lot of good, even if we’re skeptical.

We are blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, so we’re ahead of the curve in a new fad headed our way called “forest bathing.” In Japan this has been going on for decades, but it has recently arrived in trend central, California. Apparently in Los Angeles, forest bathing is an organized activity led by trained, certified forest-bathing guides. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but really, all you have to do is step into a forest for 20 minutes or more. That’s it. No fees, no equipment to buy, and even if you just sit there inert, you’ll reap the benefits.

If you think this is much ado about nothing, consider that a 1994 EPA-sponsored study revealed that the average American spends 93% of their time indoors. And that was before the Internet and smart phones. In light of this, and the mounting evidence of how important nature is to our health, around 500 mainstream medical doctors in the US now actually prescribe walks in the woods (though since most of our population resides in urban areas, a park has to suffice).

One early adopter is David Sabgir, a MD Columbus, Ohio-based cardiologist. He founded Park Rx America, a “non-profit organization whose mission is to decrease the burden of chronic disease and increase health and happiness by virtue of prescribing Nature during the routine delivery of healthcare.”

The positive effect trees have on our health is not a vague concept – it is being quantified, and the results are staggering. Given that the USA has by far the most expensive health care system in the world, the US government is very interested in potential health-care cost reduction which can be realized through exposure to nature. Dr. Kathy Wolf of the University of Washington calculates the annual savings to be at least $2.7 billion, and possibly as much as $6.7 billion.

Early in the history of public zoos, keepers noticed that animals deprived of a naturalistic environment tended to get violent, and became ill more often. The same holds true for the human animal. Dr. Frances Kuo from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana says humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat.

The advantages of experiencing nature are myriad. In a Feb. 2014 article in the, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, tells how patients in rooms with tree views had shorter hospital stays and needed less pain medication compared to patients without a natural vista. College students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows view natural settings, and after just an hour in the woods, memory performance and attention span improves 20%.

Dr. Kuo’s research finds that elderly adults tend to live longer if their homes are near a park or other green space, regardless of social or economic status, and researchers at the University of Rochester report that exposure to the natural world improves one’s capacity to nurture healthy relationships.

Scandinavian countries quietly adopted this idea long ago. In Norway there’s a movement called Friluftsliv, “open-air life,” which kind of boils down to forest bathing. They even have a law, Allemannsrett, or “all humankind’s right,” which allows anyone to walk on rural land not under cultivation.

We need to help the public regard trees as an essential part of human health, and to act accordingly. I encourage everyone to start forest-bathing as soon as possible. For that over-the-top stress, however, perhaps you could arrange to have your tub moved into the woods to get the best of all worlds.

For further information, go to

An ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, Paul Hetzler wanted to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. Having gotten over much of his self-pity concerning that unfortunate event, he now writes essays about nature. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.


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