Connecting with nature lowers our blood pressure and boosts mental health.

“If you feel comfortable, go ahead and introduce yourself to the tree. Think of questions you want to ask,” the guide suggested.

I looked up at a striking maple in Eastman Nature Center and wondered, “How did your branches end up twisting and curving so much, making you stand out in the forest?”

It was just one of the ways forest therapy guide David Motzenbecker invited us to experience nature during an immersive, three-hour winter walk through the Maple Grove park.

The therapeutic walk — based on a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing — felt a bit like a guided meditation, and a bit like a very slow hike.

I had to wiggle my toes to keep them warm, but I was able to notice subtle details — the patterns in the sky of bare branches, tracks in the snow, a lone leaf fluttering in the wind — that I hadn’t paid attention to since I was a kid.

By the time our walk was over, Motzenbecker said we’d likely lowered our blood pressure by 20%. But forest bathing can do more than that. It has a significant positive impact on mental health, especially for those with depressive tendencies, and can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Embrace Winter
30 day Challenge

For the Embrace Winter Challenge, our goal is to spend at least 30 minutes outside each day. On the coldest days, feel free to break your time into several short forays. And if the temperature and windchill are stuck in dangerous lows, consider it a free day. Start tracking your time, using whatever’s handy — a calendar, a journal or your phone’s Notes app. You also can print out a free tracking poster from 1,000 Hours Outside.

Jump to the week four challenge

Forest bathing, a term coined in the 1980s, has gained attention around the world as a way to harness nature’s therapeutic power. But a simple walk in the park or even just sitting and carefully watching the activity at a backyard bird feeder can also have an impact.

During our Embrace Winter Challenge, the goal is to spend at least 30 minutes outside every day. During our final week, we’re asking you to try bird-watching or stargazing, two slower, quieter ways to experience winter.

Bird-watching has rocketed in popularity during the pandemic as a way to connect with nature. And the night sky has the power to give us perspective and engender awe.

“When you’re looking at the stars in the sky, you are an astronaut. Your view of the stars is no different than the view of the stars from the International Space Station,” said Mike Shaw, a St. Paul night sky photographer. Winter is an excellent time to stargaze, he said, because the night’s darkness arrives so quickly.

Nature as health partner

One hypothesis about why time in nature can be so healing is called biophilia — the idea that a connection to our natural surroundings has been helping us thrive since our early beginnings as humans.

The theory is that “it’s in our DNA that, as we evolved with plants in nature, that it’s a part of what we find not only satisfying, but stress- and anxiety-resolving,” explained Jean Larson, who developed the University of Minnesota’s Nature-Based Therapeutic Services, a partnership between the Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Larson thinks of nature as a partner in her work, as she uses plants, animals and therapeutic landscapes to help patients who are recovering from a stroke or struggling with dementia.

“On a larger scale, landscapes, nature in general, become part of a public health intervention,” Larson said. “We’re seeing that quite readily now with COVID. Outdoors, in nature, where you can safely maintain your 6-foot distance from each other, is a place where people can come together and be a family and engage in connection and social activities.”

In addition to allowing us to connect safely with others, being in natural surroundings can reduce depression, anxiety and stress.

For the Embrace Winter Challenge, we’ve been pushing ourselves to get outdoors and be active in this underdog of a season. However, Larson said there are plenty of benefits to simply looking out a window.

“The mindful attention of sitting at a window and watching the birds, is to me engaging with nature,” she said.

“What I think is most important is appreciating the seasons, and appreciating what’s happening outside around you,” Larson added. “Nature is around us everywhere all the time, and we don’t recognize it. A big part is just opening your eyes and being aware of it.”

Embrace Winter Challenge four

Try bird-watching or stargazing

A Cooper's hawk sits on a limb above the snow at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield. Photo by David Joles.

Be a bird nerd

If you’re new to birding, Duluth-based birder and wildlife photographer Dudley Edmondson suggests setting up a feeder in your yard or going to a nature center with a feeding area, like Richfield’s Wood Lake Nature Center.

There are fewer species around in winter, but those that are here seek out feeders. “You’ll certainly see plenty of red-bellied woodpeckers and cardinals and blue jays, downy woodpeckers, chickadees,” Edmondson said.

If you want to explore, try parks or refuges with open water. Download the free app Merlin Bird ID, and bring along binoculars. “Find the bird with your eyes first. And then, don’t take your gaze off the bird and simply lift the binoculars to your eyes,” he said.

You may develop what Edmondson calls “bird vision,” quickly keying into their movement. “Once you start seeing birds, you can’t unsee them,” he said.

Look up, stargazers

Look for the winter hexagon, formed by six very bright stars in the southern sky after dusk, said Suresh Sreenivasan, who leads the Minnesota Astronomical Society’s beginners program. Orion the hunter, with his belt, is inside the hexagon facing us, with the star Rigel as his left foot.

To get kids interested, “see if they can make up their own constellation,” said night sky photographer Mike Shaw. “Maybe it’s a comic book character, or a friend from school or their favorite food.”

Bring handwarmers, a light, and a telescope or binoculars and download an app like SkySafari. Carver County’s Baylor Regional Park, where the astronomical society has its observatory, is Sreenivasan’s go-to stargazing spot. Wisconsin’s Crex Meadows Wildlife Area is known for its dark sky. Stars are visible anywhere in Minnesota, so try backyard stargazing. “One of the nice things about the winter sky is there’s a lot of really bright stars and constellations that are visible,” said Sreenivasan.

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