Posted 11:25 a.m. Monday, Nov. 27, 2023
Study finds mental and physiological health benefits for kids and teens who participate in structured forest therapy
A UW-La Crosse study found substantial health and well-being improvements for children and adolescents who participated in a structured forest bathing session. The improvements were both mental and physiological — including a measured decrease in blood pressure over the course of the event.
“These findings provide implications for health program providers including practitioners to promote forest bathing programs for children and adolescents with mental health challenges,” says UWL Associate Professor Namyun Kil, the study’s lead author.
Forest bathing, also called forest therapy, is a slow and mindful immersion experience in a natural setting. The practice, which originated in Japan in the 1980s, has received growing attention for its ability to promote relaxation and improve health and well-being outcomes for various populations. The UWL study looked specifically at the benefits for children and adolescents with mental health challenges.
The study found that two structured forest bathing walks significantly improved the health and well-being of children and adolescents who have mental health challenges. The improvements were both psychological and physiological in areas of mindfulness, nature connection, mood states, place meanings, and physiological health. A collaboration between UWL’s of Recreation Management and Recreational Therapy, Korea Forest Therapy Forum Incorporated Association, and Hiawatha Valley Education District-SAIL Program (two former students coauthored), the study was published in the “International Journal of Mental Health Promotion Psychological and Physiological Health” in November 2023.
In the study, twelve participants, ages 9–14 years, engaged in two, one-hour guided forest therapy experiences on a one-half mile of the Hixon Forest trail in July 2019. The study subjects had mental and cooccurring behavioral health issues, such as anxiety, stress, trauma, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. Several scales were used to measure the children and adolescents’ mindfulness, connection to nature, mood states, place meaning, and physiological health responses before and after the walks.
Health benefits of structured forest bathing for kids study results
- Mindfulness significantly increased after two sessions
- Nature connection substantially increased after two sessions
- The levels of tension-anxiety, depression, anger-hostility, fatigue, and confusion significantly decreased, while the level of vigor significantly increased.
- Place meanings (e.g., place dependence for forest bathing) significantly increased after the sessions
- A significant decrease in blood pressure occurred: systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure when comparing pre-forest therapy walk and post-forest therapy walk.
- The finding suggests that structured programs to foster nature relatedness involving healing and comfort in forests may offer a promising way forward as a potential public health initiative.
“Individuals of all ages, particularly children and adolescents, are encouraged to get used to engaging in the slow mindful nature immersion experiences at their early life stages, if possible, which could potentially benefit their health and well-being as their development progresses,” says Kil. “Parents of children are encouraged to spend more time immersing themselves in nature with their children. Grandparents who know about forest bathing can do the same thing with their grandchildren – Intergenerational learning experiences.”
The study was funded by the 2018 Faculty Research Grant and the 2019 College of Science and Health Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship Grant at UW-La Crosse.