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What is forest bathing? Therapy relieves stress with healing power of nature

For a healthy body, let nature work its magic.
/ Source: TODAY

For a healthy mind and body, let nature work its magic.

Spending at least two hours a week outdoors in a natural setting is linked with good health and well-being, according to a study published in Scientific Reports. It didn't matter how those 120 minutes were achieved — whether over regular short walks in a local park or one long hike on the weekend — just as long as people met that weekly threshold.

The findings are based on data from almost 20,000 people in England. Those who reported spending at least two hours a week in nature had consistently higher levels of both physical and mental health than people who didn't seek out the great outdoors.

That may be because being in nature is often synonymous with being active, the authors said. But there seems to be more to it: Exercising in nature "may be more psychologically beneficial than in other locations, suggesting a complex interaction between the two."

That's the idea behind forest therapy — walking through the woods, using your senses to connect with nature, staying in the present moment, no phones allowed — as a way to restore sanity.

Inspired by Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing,” a concept that began in the 1980s in Japan, the practice can offer powerful health benefits, said Amos Clifford, founder and director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.

He sees people become more relaxed and happier. As stress goes away, they start looking at their life in a new way. Some find relief for their chronic pain or insomnia.

What is it about nature that’s so soothing?

“It’s home. We evolved out of the forests and there’s something really deep in us that has a sense of recognition of forests. We seem to be wired for it,” Clifford told TODAY.

“We see a reset of the nervous system, where people start coming back to a healthier baseline. They’re away from their devices, they’re not in traffic, they’re not watching the 24-hour news cycle… they’re very much in the present moment.”

“The body, in those circumstances, has this incredible capacity for healing itself.”

Science backs up those findings. Going into nature changes how your brain works; it reduces stress levels and boosts measures of well being, said David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, who studies cognition and nature.

One big reason: You leave your technology behind.

“It’s a contrast between our modern, plugged-in, frenetic, on-the-go, connected-to-social-media, sleeping-with-your-phone-under-your-pillow modern world,” Strayer said.

This lifestyle constantly taxes and over-stimulates your prefrontal cortex — the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain — and makes you “brain fatigued,” he noted.

When you’re enjoying nature, you can rest the prefrontal cortex. You're more in the moment rather than ruminating about your problems. The parts of the brain associated with being mindful and in a meditative state become more active, he noted.

There’s also the exercise component, which has positive effects on mood, memory and cognitive function.

Researchers see the changes quickly. People report that they see benefits even in working outdoors and gardening.

“If you can manage to get yourself to a park, place to walk, jog, just enjoy, be in nature and leave the phone behind for 30 minutes, you start to see benefits,” Strayer said.

The ultimate rewards happen after three days of being out in nature, Strayer said.

Forest therapy: What to expect

Forest therapy is consistent with what we know about why being in nature is so good for us, Strayer said.

A typical forest therapy group walk with a guide lasts about three hours. It’s not about rushing or hiking, so you won’t go far — perhaps half a mile. Guides choose easy, gentle trails, so you don’t have to be fit. The walk could be in a city park or in a more remote forest.

To focus on being mindful, the guide will give a series of “invitations” — asking you to notice the sounds of a stream or the feel of dirt in your hand, for example.

“That helps people get progressively more connected to their senses and to their bodies and to the place they’re in, and to really just slow down and relax,” Clifford said. “What are you drawn to? What about this is enjoyable?”

A guided group walk typically costs about $30 per person. It can be useful to start off with a guide so you get the hang of what the practice is about. But if you'd prefer to go it alone, especially in this time of social distancing, you'll reap the benefits that way too.