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Walking In The Woods With Dr. Qing Li    

Walking In The Woods With Dr. Qing Li

Art by FISK

By Justin Tejada

The old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees refers to missing out on the big picture because we get too focused on the tiny details. Anyone who has spent time in an actual forest, not the metaphorical one, may have experienced this IRL. It’s easy to get swept up in things like the beauty of the scenery and not notice how the experience is impacting your overall outlook. 

Dr. Qing Li has made a career out of researching the connections between spending time in forests and physical and mental health. He is the author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health And Happiness, a book that has been translated into 26 languages and is a comprehensive guide on the immense scientific benefits that a simple walk in the woods can yield. 

After growing up in China, Dr. Li began studying in Japan, where a visit to the forest with friends sparked a lifelong fascination. We spoke with Dr. Li to find out more about the benefits of forest bathing, his favorite forest, and how you can get started.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

What made you want to pursue studies in forest medicine? 

I have loved nature and forests since my childhood. I was born in a small village in China. There were green poplar forests and a beautiful apricot forest in my village which flowered pink all through April. 

In 1988, I came to Japan and studied at Kagoshima University. At that time, I visited a very beautiful forest with my friends in Yakushima, a small island with a mysterious, glowing, green forest. The quiet atmosphere, beautiful scenery, mild climate, special smell, and fresh, clean air in forests with big Japanese cedar trees and Jomon sugi made me very happy and relaxed. I became convinced that forest bathing was absolutely essential to human health. That visit had an important impact on the whole direction of my life and my future research. 

I have studied the effects of environmental chemicals, stress, and lifestyle on immune function and human health since 1988 in Kagoshima University and Nippon Medical School. I want to know why we feel so much better when we are in forests. What is this secret power of trees that makes us so much healthier and happier? Why is it that we feel less stressed and have more energy just by walking in the forest? 

Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being. 

What are some of the reactions you get when you tell people what you do?

When I first said I would do research on forest bathing, some people gave a negative opinion, and some said it was an interesting study. Even those who initially gave negative opinions began to appreciate my research after I got good experimental results and published articles in a well-known journal. 

In 2006, when I presented my research results on forest bathing at an international conference held in Italy, there were several participants who asked me if people take off their clothes and bathe naked in the forests when forest bathing.

What makes spending time in forests unique?

It affects all the five senses. However, the sense of smell has the biggest effect. I have found that phytoncides or essential oils from trees boost immune function and reduce stress hormones and show benefits on human health.

What are some of the special things you’ve learned from your research?

When I first conducted a forest bathing experiment, I heard from local people that there were few cancer patients in their village. I was surprised. This story provided a hint for my new research. So, I looked at the relationship between forest coverage rates and cancer mortality. I got amazing results. People living in areas with lower forest coverage had a significantly higher mortality rate of cancers compared with the people living in areas with higher forest coverage. These findings indicate that increased forest coverage may partially contribute to a decrease in mortality due to cancers in Japan.

For someone who is new to forest bathing, what are tips for starting out?

I have 10 tips for shinrin-yoku:

  1. Make a plan based on your own physical abilities and avoid tiring yourself out.
  2. If you have an entire day, stay in the forest for about four hours and walk about five kilometers. If you have just a half-day, stay in the forest for about two hours and walk about 2.5 kilometers.
  3. Take a rest whenever you are tired.
  4. Drink water or tea whenever you feel thirsty.
  5. Find a place you like, then sit for a while and read or enjoy the scenery.
  6. If possible, bathe in a hot spring after the forest trip.
  7. Select a forest bathing course based on your aims.
  8. If you want to boost your immunity, a three-day/two-night trip is recommended. The effect can last 30 days. 
  9. If you just want to relax and relieve stress, a day trip to a forested park near your home would be recommended. The effect of a day trip can last seven days.
  10. Forest bathing is a preventive measure, so if you come down with an illness, see a doctor.

For people who live in more urban environments and don’t have great access to nature, are there things that they can still do to enjoy the benefits?

You can do forest bathing in city parks. My studies have shown that walking in city parks can reduce negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and it can improve positive feelings such as vigor. Walking in city parks also can reduce stress. You can also use aroma inside your homes to enjoy the sense of smell that you get from forest bathing. You can put plants inside your home or office to enjoy the sense of sight of forest bathing. You can even watch videos taken from forest landscapes to enjoy the senses of sight and hearing.  

How would you describe the power that trees have?

Trees can ease our stress and worry. They help us relax and think more clearly. Being in a forest can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, and rejuvenate us. 

How long have people known about the power of trees? 

We all know how good being in forests can make us feel. We have known it for millennia. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh air—these things give us a sense of comfort. We know this deep in our bones. It is like an intuition or an instinct.

Do you have a favorite forest? What is it and what makes it so special?

Akasawa National Recreation Forest or Akasawa-shizen-ryu-hyo-rin is my favorite forest. Akasawa is the birthplace of shinrin-yoku and is regarded as one of the three most beautiful forests in Japan. In the forest, towering groves of Japanese cypresses, or hinoki, stand thirty-five meters tall. They are beautiful trees with dark red trunks of peeling bark and deep-green needles on graceful branches. This area is full of hinoki trees and has some of the most beautiful, fragrant forests in Japan. There are almost no mosquitoes in the forests here because of the scent from these Japanese cypress trees. 

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