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Forest bathing: Regular visits to the woods can offer health benefits

August 4, 2015 Updated: August 4, 2015 at 7:52 am
photo - Young  women in forest 10
Young women in forest 10 

There's a reason John Muir said, "The mountains are calling and I must go."

Much can happen when you commune with a tree, breathe in the smell of a stream and watch a bumblebee scrounge for pollen. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates to forest bathing or forest therapy, and it comes with a host of healthy benefits.

"It's a low-cost and highly-accessible wellness promotion and wellness maintenance," said Amos Clifford, founder and director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy in Santa Rosa, Calif. He's also offered forest therapy guide training for the past 18 months. "It can be done in city parks as easily as in more wild natural areas," Clifford said.

And we're not talking about a vigorous hike or sneaking in a cardio session. An ideal forest therapy session is about two hours every week spent slowly meandering through a wooded area. It's a time to stop and smell the dandelions, notice insects crawling up a tree trunk or listen to the birds call to each other. It's slow, it's mindful, it's a time to connect with all of the senses.

"We say stop and smell everything, the dirt, the water and do the same thing with the eyes," Clifford said. "When moving slowly allow yourself to see things and fully see it, even if you just sit and look into a stream or at a tree. All of our senses are connected to emotional experiences. Notice the texture and movement of water and what it evokes inside your body."

You may be thinking to yourself that you already do this, you just didn't have a name for it. Me too, though I usually take to the woods with a dual purpose approach - get myself on a trail for both a workout and to enjoy the scenery and fresh oxygen along the way.

I decided to do a full-fledged forest therapy session.

Fortunately for us, our city has infinite bucolic areas in which to forest bathe. I settled on the woods right around the Starsmore Discovery Center in North Cheyenne Cañon Park. The distinctive sound of hummingbirds greeted me on a recent Saturday afternoon. I stopped to smell the bark of a few trees, take in the red berries dotting the center of leaves on many of the bushes and touch another leaf with raised yellowish bumps, which immediately caused me to worry about poison ivy or some other scratchy result (didn't happen). On the way out, I realized one of the trees had golf ball-shaped green apples, something I've never noticed on my previous, faster- paced hikes along the same trail.

Numerous studies indicate a visit to the woods provides multiple positive benefits, including stress reduction, lowered blood pressure and improved mood, energy level and sleep.

"People come back home into their body's natural capacity for wellness and healing itself," Clifford said. "Bodies are remarkable and have the capacity to heal themselves. Stress works against that."

It's well known that stress can be deadly. It suppresses the natural killer cells in the body, he said, the ones that destroy hostile cells, including cancer. Scientific evidence has shown that a session of forest therapy increases the killer cell count.

"There is a significant increase in killer cells that persists for a week," Clifford said. "A walk per week is a pretty good strategy for maintaining the immune system."

His mission is to eventually integrate forest therapy into the national health care system. To accomplish that, he's working toward having a network of trained guides to lead groups across the country.

Jane West, a counseling psychologist in Denver, recently returned from a training held in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. She plans to start leading walks next month in Denver or Eagle counties.

"It centers me and makes me excited to observe what's going on around me and to be a part of it," West said. "The forest means so much. We need it so much more in our lives than we really imagine."

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