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Forest bathing for beginners

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When you step into the forest, it is hard not to be in awe. You have the trees towering above, the sound of the birds tweeting, the smell of pine needles in the air. It turns out decades of research has shown that forest bathing, or the act of taking in the forest through your senses, is really good for your health. Researchers in Japan and other countries found that it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, help with depression, even help your body fight cancer cells.

Marielle Segarra, the host of NPR's Life Kit, is here with a guide to forest bathing that is rooted in that research.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: A lot of the time, when we head to the woods or a hiking trail, nature's kind of a backdrop, right? It's secondary.

GARY EVANS: So we might be walking and talking with a friend, running, cycling, horse riding.

SEGARRA: Gary Evans directs The Forest Bathing Institute in the U.K., and he says when you're forest bathing, your primary focus should be connecting with nature. It's kind of like bathing in your tub. You're there to relax and sit in the experience.

EVANS: So that's the first thing. Set the intention.

SEGARRA: Ideally, you'll also set aside an entire morning or afternoon. Dr. Qing Li says two to six hours is best.

QING LI: The longer is the better. The longer is more effective.

SEGARRA: Li is a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. He designed and carried out a lot of Japan's research on forest bathing, and he says the health benefits of a forest bathing session can last for as long as 30 days. So aim to do this once a month or maybe more often if your sessions are short. Now, for location, a nice patch of forest or woods is best, but you could get some of the same benefits from a city park if it has a lot of trees and quiet spaces.

LI: So if you have one day to visit a city park, you also can get a beneficial effect.

SEGARRA: Once you're among the trees, this is a good time to sit or walk or do some gentle yoga or tai chi. It's not the time to squeeze in your hardcore cardio for the week.

EVANS: We're going to move very slowly in forest bathing, and we want to reduce the heart rate.

SEGARRA: So try this. Go to the woods, walk until you find a spot that speaks to you. Sit down.

EVANS: And then just be present with the environment, and leave the phone alone.

SEGARRA: Once you're settled in, engage your senses.

LI: The sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

SEGARRA: Let's start with smell. Li says many of the benefits of forest bathing come from inhaling the chemicals that trees release into the air. They're called phytoncides, and they can reduce our stress hormones and increase our levels of anti-cancer proteins. So take a deep breath and ask yourself, what do I smell? Next, listen for the rustling of chipmunks or the gurgling of a creek. Notice the colors, the blue sky, the bright green leaves. Touch the bark of that tree. Is it rough or smooth? Does it have any scars from old branches?

And taste - you know, use discretion. Don't just pick up a mushroom and start eating it. But if you learn about plants and foraging, you can add that to your practice. When you observe nature like this, that can slow down your fight-or-flight response and lower your body's stress hormones. One last thing - you can work with the forest to process whatever you're going through. Evans says nature can be a kind of mirror.

EVANS: So depending on what's happening in your emotional world, quite often, when we look at nature or the forest, it sends something back to us to help us make sense of what's going on in our life.

SEGARRA: Let's say you're grieving a loss or thinking about mortality. In the forest, when trees die, they become homes for woodpeckers and owls. They give mushrooms and moss a place to grow. The point is, in death, they support life. And there's so much more wisdom that the forest holds for us when we pay attention. Marielle Segarra, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: And stick around. We will have more on foraging in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marielle Segarra
Marielle Segarra is a reporter and the host of NPR's Life Kit, the award-winning podcast and radio show that shares trustworthy, nonjudgmental tips that help listeners navigate their lives.
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