The Scoop: Forest therapy can help people become more at peace with themselves and others by connecting with nature. The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (ANFT) encourages couples to engage more fully with their natural surroundings and learn how to get the most out of their experiences. The organization leads guided hikes for couples who want to become more in tune with their relationships on a date. And for those even more interested in forest therapy, the organization offers intense guide training.
Many couples enjoy taking walks through the woods on a date because it makes them feel closer to nature and each other. But not everyone knows a term exists to describe that feeling: forest therapy.
Studies also show that spending time outdoors is beneficial for both mind and body. Walking in the woods for at least 40 minutes can improve health and put couples in a better mood.
According to the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (ANFT), the practice also has many other benefits.
“There are many wonderful health benefits attributed to forest therapy including boosted immune function, improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, attention restoration and a reduction in stress and depression,” according to the ANFT website.
Couples don’t have to do anything special to benefit from forest therapy. But for the practice to be most meaningful, the ANFT recommends creating a “relationship of reciprocity, in which the forest and the practitioner find a way to work together that supports the wholeness and wellness of each.”
ANFT Founder M. Amos Clifford created a framework that helps forest bathers — a term for those taking part in the experience — to deepen their experiences in nature. These practices are based on the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.”
Forest bathing means making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. That means leaving technology behind, especially mobile devices, so couples can be present in the moment.
“One reason that we’ve been so successful as a tech society is that we’ve insulated ourselves from nature and deluded ourselves that we’re separate from nature,” M. Amos told us.
M. Amos also encourages people to practice mindfulness by paying attention to sounds, feelings, and views. And when two partners travel together on a date, remaining silent until after the walk can encourage a robust discussion about the experience afterward.
Nature Dates Help Couples Build Bonds
M. Amos started the ANFT more than a decade ago after noticing how disconnected most people had become from nature. He attributed that to a combination of climate change and overconsumption.
Though the health benefits of communing with nature are clear, the ANFT’s primary goal is to reestablish relationships between people and the earth, including trees, stones, and clouds.
Another component M. Amos said he considers important is making forest therapy as easily accessible as possible. As a young man, he served as a wilderness guide but came to recognize how often “wild” activities required free time and proximity — luxuries not everyone had.
“In shinrin-yoku — forest bathing — one of the things I read about were walks that were leisurely and didn’t cover a lot of territory. I’d never been to Japan then, but I’ve been to Japan twice now and am friends with top researchers and guides,” he said.
His practice also borrows zen, psychotherapy techniques, and cultural attitudes about nature from Japan, Korea, and Germany.
Forest bathing is healthy for couples for many reasons. First, it encourages them to get out of their typical date routines and disconnect from technology or work obligations that may stress them out.
“When I’ve had couples on my walks, they seem to connect. My impression is because they’re outside of their normal routine, they’re able to behave toward each other in new creative ways,” M. Amos said.
The Next Level: Becoming Forest Therapy Guides
Some couples enjoy the principles of forest therapy so much that they decide to become guides themselves.
When a couple or individual signs up for training, they join a cohort of a maximum of 30 aspiring guides. Each cohort is assigned two teachers from a global guide group.
The course curriculum includes plenty of forest fieldwork, with each aspiring guide learning more about his or her local ecosystem.
“We guide forest therapy walks virtually on the phone from eight to 10 countries via Zoom or WhatsApp. We’ve found that is highly effective,” said M. Amos.
Participants immerse themselves in a forest of their choice for four days to complete the training. That is when many aspiring guides experience an inspirational moment that demonstrates the value of forest bathing.
Over the years, M. Amos and his trainers have seen several couples go through the training together.
“We’ve had at least 10 couples do it together. One couple had been living in a cult community for years, gotten free of that, and found a way forward. They trained together,” he told us.
Individuals from many walks of life train to become guides. Some, including teachers, nurses, doctors, and mental health counselors, add what they’ve learned to their own professional lives, as well.
Even if a couple doesn’t plan on taking groups of people forest bathing, they can still experience these nature-connecting principles in their own ways.
“A lot of people do it in their backyard. You don’t have to go far to connect with nature. Even if you’re in a place without trees, if you can grow plants in a window box to connect with nature,” said M. Amos.
Ensuring Outdoor Experiences Help People Grow
While couples can practice forest bathing on their own while on a date, they may wish for some guidance. If so, they can connect with one of the more than 2,000 certified ANFT guides in 60 countries.
The ANFT guides also encourage couples to get in touch with nature in other ways. For instance, guides often bring tea that has been foraged sustainably and safely from the forest they walk through.
“Forest tea is one of the hallmarks of the ANFT forest therapy. It is a tradition in Japan also, although, on forest bathing walks, they often serve tea and snacks in the middle of the walk instead of at the end,” said M. Amos.
Couples or families who practice forest bathing together can find an openness that they may not always share in their daily lives.
“It’s my impression that families share a relaxed openness with each other that maybe is quite unusual in their households,” said M. Amos.
Couples who want to try forest bathing themselves can also choose a Certified Trail.
To earn certification, a trail must be a place where “a broad spectrum of fitness levels can interact with nature and forests, primarily through their senses … ANFT considers trails for certification based initially on criteria such as accessibility, safety, biodiversity, natural features, and management,” according to the website.
As forest therapy becomes more popular, M. Amos said he is pleased to see how people integrate those principles into their own lives.
“That gives me great personal satisfaction that all of these guides are out guiding other people. It’s like if you toss a handful of pebbles on a still pond and see all those ripples connecting with each other and reaching the edge of the pond,” he said.