Hiking in a forest may change your brainwaves

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Try some forest therapy.

Photo: jitloac/iStock

When you've had a bad day, a walk in the woods can help you mentally relax and recuperate. But you don’t need to take my word for it, or even Hillary Clinton's. Researchers have found objective evidence. In a recent study, the electrical activity inside people's brains during a forest walk was consistent with a relaxed but focused state of mind.

Positive changes in brain activity

The study, conducted by researchers at Sichuan Agricultural University in China, included 60 healthy, young college students. These students were randomly assigned to participate in a 15-minute guided walk through either a bamboo forest or an urban setting.

During the walk, the students’ brainwaves—patterns of electrical activity within the brain—were monitored with portable electroencephalogram (EEG) technology. Before and after the walk, their blood pressure was checked. The students also filled out questionnaires asking about their mental state.

Among those who walked in the forest, their EEGs showed changes in their brainwaves beginning within minutes. Specifically, there were increases in alpha wave power, typically associated with calmness and alertness, and beta wave activity, another indicator of heightened attentiveness. In contrast, those who walked in the city showed a different pattern of brain activity.

Lower blood pressure, less anxiety

The study’s other findings supported the EEG data. Blood pressure readings consist of two numbers: systolic pressure (the first number) and diastolic pressure (the second number). Both were decreased in the forest walkers. By comparison, diastolic pressure was increased in the urban walkers.

In the questionnaire responses, people reported feeling more comfortable, relaxed, and natural after the forest walk than after the city walk. The forest group also reported feeling less anxious.

Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term for "forest bathing,” or soaking up the forest atmosphere for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Lower levels of a stress hormone

Past research has shown similar benefits. In a 2010 study, for example, 280 young men walked in and viewed either a forest area or an urban area in Japan. Compared to the urban setting, the forest environment promoted:

  • Lower levels of cortisol (a hormone connected to the body’s stress response)

  • Slower heart rate

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Greater parasympathetic activity (activation of part of the nervous system associated with the body’s relaxation response)

The upshot: A walk in the woods can help relax your body and restore your focus. And while you’re out there, consider snapping a photo or two for later. Another recent study showed that just looking at forest images can increase mental and physical relaxation.

About the author

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance health and psychology writer.

Key references

Hassan, A., Tao, J., Li, G., Jiang, M., Aii, L., Zhihui, J., . . . Qibing, C. (2018). Effects of Walking in Bamboo Forest and City Environments on Brainwave Activity in Young Adults. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2018, 1-9. doi:10.1155/2018/9653857

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18-26. doi:10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

Song, C., Ikei, H., & Miyazaki, Y. (2018). Physiological Effects of Visual Stimulation with Forest Imagery. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(2), 213. doi:10.3390/ijerph15020213