Forest Bathing: Dr. Qing Li’ s Definitive Guide to the Healing Power of Nature

by Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

Reading Dr. Qing Li’s new book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness that is being released publicly April 17, I found myself reflecting on how time in nature has shaped my life. This excellent read will prompt many to search out ways to introduce time in nature to their lifestyle.

li book

Dr. Li is the leading world expert on forest medicine. He is an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and is a founding member of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

This book offers many things: a glimpse into the Japanese culture’s close relationship to nature; an explanation of how nature impacts our health; examples of some of the practices in Japan for using nature to improve health; and suggestions on how to practice Shinrin Yoku. If you take the time to put Dr. Li’s suggestions into practice it will have a positive impact on your life and health.

Nature: Intertwined with the Culture of Japan

Understanding the importance of nature in Japanese culture provides an important lens through which to view this topic.

Dr. Li reflects on time in his childhood growing up in the countryside, contrasting that with today, living in bustling Tokyo. He is blessed though, to work next to a beautiful park. Whether in the city or country, being near nature is important to the Japanese. It is no surprise that Shinrin Yoku is so popular there.

Shinrin Yoku is simply breathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through your senses. Shinrin in Japanese means forest, yoku means bath. Shinrin Yoku is not hiking, jogging or exercising, it is an experience. “Shinrin Yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses it bridges the gap between us and the natural world,” states Li. When this happens the body and mind can begin to heal.

Shinrin Yoku started in Japan, according to Li,  primarily because it is a forest civilization. The culture, philosophy and religion of Japan are all carved out of the forest. Japan is densely populated, but it also has over 3,000 miles of forest. Both of Japan’s official religions (Shinto and Buddhism) believe the forest is the divine. Buddhists believe the natural world is the word of God. Shinto believe the spirit and nature are one, found in rocks, trees, streams and the breeze. This spirit is called kami.

Nature is part of every aspect of life in Japan. Shizen, which means nature, is one of the seven principles of Zen aesthetics, meaning that we are all connected to nature emotionally, spiritually and physically. An example of this, is when in the fall, the Japanese have moon viewings or tsukimi. Family and friends gather together at a place they can clearly see the moon and decorate with autumn flowers and pampas grass.

In 1982 a national health program of forest bathing was introduced in Japan. The forest that was first used (Akasawa) had groves of Japanese Cypress or Hinoki trees. The wood has a scent of lemon and smoke.

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Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

How Shinrin Yoku Improves Health

The book transitions from focusing on the origins of Shinrin Yoku to discussing the many health benefits of utilizing this practice.

The science of the connection between nature and health is revealing encouraging results. Research studies have found positive correlations between time in nature and strengthened immune system, increased energy, decreased anxiety, depression and anger, reduced stress and improved sleep.

One of the key benefits of forest bathing is “breathing in the the forest’s natural aromatherapy. Plant chemicals known as phytoncides have been found to boost the immune system. Evergreens like pine trees, cedar, spruce and conifers are the largest produces of phytoncides. Li uses essential oils to introduce the smells of the forest into his indoor environments. His favorite is not surprising, Hinoki oil. Studies have found that exposure to phytoncides increases the numbers and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells which help fight off disease, decrease levels of stress hormones, increase hours of sleep, increase mood, lower blood pressure and bring the nervous system into balance. Plug your Hinoki infused diffuser up today! I have.

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White Trillium, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina  Photo by Mark Ellison

Developing Your Shinrin Yoku Practice

One of the most important take aways from this book is how to incorporate the practice of Shinrin Yoku into your overall healthy living strategy.

Li describes the forest as being like our mother, a sacred place, a paradise of healing, which is the foundation of forest medicine. To experience nature he suggests finding a spot you enjoy going. Leave behind your phone and camera. Let your body be your guide. Be lead by your senses. Savor the sounds, smells and sights of nature. The key to unlocking the wonderful power of nature is found in the five senses. Let nature enter through your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet.

There are many activities you can do in nature to promote health. Walking (perhaps barefoot), yoga, eating, hot springs therapy,  T’ai chi, meditation, nordic walking and plant observation. A very important point is emphasized: it is critical that you take the time to get to know yourself and about what you like to do. Learn how to relax in the forest.

We can not always get outside, but we can bring the power of the forest inside through the use of essential oils. Dr. Li recommends Hinoki oil and also suggests several others.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed reading this book. I have practiced Shinrin Yoku for several years and teach classes on it as well, and learned quite a bit. It provides a solid, informative plunge into the world of Shinrin Yoku. Li offers many suggestions that you will want to refer back to as your practice of Shinrin Yoku evolves, only a few of which are described here. You will not be disappointed with your investment in this book.

Let me know if you are interested in becoming part of a larger community focused on learning about and promoting the connections between nature and health.

 

 

 

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A Conversation with Dr. Qing Li about His New Book on Shinrin-Yoku

By Dr. Mark A Ellison

The Japanese practice of Forest Medicine,or Shinrin-Yoku, has gained quite a bit of notoriety of the past few years. Dr. Qing Li is the person who helped develop this practice and promote it first in Japan, and subsequently around the world. I first worked with Dr. Li in 2011, and had the opportunity to meet with him in 2013 where we presented at a conference about the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

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Qing Li and Mark Ellison hosting the first North American INFOM meeting.

Dr. Li is a physician at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, a visiting fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is a founding member and chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, a member of the Task Force of Forests and Human Health, and the vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

He has a new book that will be released in April 2018: Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness which will provide insights to how nature impacts our health and how to experience Shinrin-Yoku. I recently had the opportunity to get feedback from Dr. Li about his new book recently.

li book

What is the focus of this book?

“Although there is not much new data in this book, it is written for general readers in an easy to understand manner. The target audience for this book is the general public, not for researchers. There are many forest bathing practices in this book.”

Is Forest Medicine becoming more widely accepted?

“We have to understand that Forest Medicine is a preventive medicine, but not a clinical medicine in the moment. I hope Forest Medicine will be developed into a clinical medicine at least partially.”

What countries are in the forefront of developing forest therapy bases and or integrating access to nature as a primary public health initiative?

Japan, Korea, Finland, China

How do you practice Shinrin-Yoku?

“I always go to forest bathing once a month and visit city park every weekend. I always take hot spring after forest bathing.”

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Dr. Qing Li

Spending time in nature has many benefits for the mind, body, and spirit. Take time to learn more about Shinrin-Yoku in your efforts to maximize your health and well-being.

Five Ways to Connect to Nature in 2018

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Plott Balsam Mountain Range (North Carolina)

The new year is a fantastic time to rediscover how being in nature can help reduce stress and increase effectiveness. You do not have to make a large commitment of time, just block out some space in your schedule. Here are a few tips that I use to help stay connected to nature.

Develop a Plan Focused on Doing Things You Love

I like to spend time in nature by hiking, cycling, mountain biking, and kayaking, so I set goals in each of these areas to make sure I stay on track. It helps my physical fitness, and also my mental fitness. It is not about the numbers, but that helps me stay motivated. I had 1,300 miles in 2017, so I am aiming for 1,500 in 2018. My body, mind and spirit will thank me for every extra mile.

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Sunset over Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Waterrock Knob Trail (NC)

 

Make Room for Silence

We live in a noisy world. One way to escape the stress that this causes is to allow the silence available in nature to capture your attention. This is not only calming but serves to help restore your attention capacities. Find quiet places to go on a lunch break or for an after work stroll. When you have time for more extended trips, find places that are not near areas with lots of human created noises (eg, roads, airports, neighborhoods).

Reflect While You Are in Nature

Getting away from the things that cause stress and spending time in nature is the perfect setting to reflect. Bring a journal and write about whatever is on your mind. Try writing with your non-dominate hand to help your mind slow down. Draw the things you see in nature. These simple approaches to reflection can help you relax.

Volunteer

There are numerous volunteer opportunities that can get you out in nature more. Perhaps there is a community garden in your area, or a trail maintenance and hiking club such as the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville, NC. These are great ways to help the environment and make new friends.

Take a Social Media Fast

Social media diverts attention. When you are in nature stop thinking about what pictures you want to take to share on social media. Let yourself become immersed in the experience. You will remember much more about the things you saw during a hike if you are not constantly thinking about what you want to photograph.

Enjoy the new year and get outside as much as you can. There is bountiful research showing that time in nature truly does wonders for your mind, body and spirit.

I hope to see you out on the trail or paddling sometime soon!

Finding Quiet Can Be Elusive, Even in Nature

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Perhaps you noticed that we live in a noisy world. Maybe it is the constant hum of traffic, or the construction near your office, or the neighbors that are constantly using lawn equipment. It is difficult to escape. Over half the world’s population now lives in urban settings, making it extremely difficult to find quiet if you live in these settings. Even in rural areas, finding places free of human created noise is not easy.

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The National Park Service recently created a map that indicates that many people live in areas where night skies and soundscapes are very degraded. The blue areas of the map below indicate places where noise is less prevalent. Unfortunately, most of the eastern United States is brightly colored indicating significant noise and light pollution. The park service also found that even in more natural backcountry settings noise is prevalent due to hikers, maintenance equipment and other sources. Excessive noise is harmful not only to human health, but to wildlife as well. Certain species of animals avoid noisy places. America_Quiet

Fortunately there are places such as the “One Square Inch” project in Olympic National Park that are treated as sanctuaries for silence, to experience the quiet of nature, and used to help build awareness of the need for more areas like it.

A number of research studies have linked excessive noise with increased levels of violence and crime. Humans need to experience some levels of quiet and solitude to remain healthy. Nature provides a primary escape for this. However, if the dwindling areas of nature are not protected, there will no more places offering this type of escape.

Many of us struggle to hear our “inner voice”, to live a balanced life, and to take time to reflect. The Cherokee have a term for living life in balance, duyuktv. Take time to find a quiet natural area nearby and soak in some of the restorative power of nature, to find a sense of balance, of duyuktv. Once you have captured that restoration, share it with others. Then, work together to help protect the natural areas where you live and explore.

Introducing Silence to our Landscape, One Square Inch at a Time

It is raining this morning at my home in North Carolina. It is soothing listening to the gentle showers while watching the songbirds frolic in the water. What I l love about rain, and snow, is that the world gets a little quieter because not as may people are out, and things seem to slow down a bit.

Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

I enjoy days like this because the world is a noisy place. The majority of us live and work in cities, or developed areas, which usually means non-stop human generated noise: traffic, lawnmowers, airplanes, sirens, trains, machinery and crowded side walks. There is no way to escape. The verve of the city is stimulating, and fun. But for our health, we need an escape from it.

Noise can negatively impact health in many ways. Noise causes stress, and literally any sound can be perceived as noise under the right conditions. Over 11 million Americans are exposed to traffic noise at or above levels that risk hearing loss (Bell et al, 2001). Exposure to noise has been associated with many health problems including hypertension, ulcers, compromised immune system, digestive problems, psychological changes that lead to disease, sleep loss, and delayed development of reading and verbal skills in children (Bell et al, 2001). Noise also increases aggressiveness when people are angry (Bell et al, 2001). Studies have linked increased crime to the presence of noise in communities (Bell et al, 2001).

Spending time in natural settings provides  opportunities to experience silence. Freedom not only from ambient noise, but also the opportunity to experience “cognitive quiet” a term first used by Stephen & Rachel Kaplan, professors at the University of Michigan, to describe clearing the mind to be able to think more clearly. Silence in nature does not necessarily mean complete quiet, just freedom from human generated noise. The presence of what the Kaplans identified as “soft fascination” in nature is relaxing, not stress inducing. Soft fascination includes things such as bird songs, the water of a stream flowing over rocks, a  rain shower, or the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, which help clear the mind. Soft fascination captures our attention to a small degree, but leaves room for thought, and self reflection.

Moss and fern covered tree in Hoh Rain Forest Photo by Mark Ellison

Moss and fern covered tree in Hoh Rain Forest
Photo by Mark Ellison

One of the most beautiful and quiet places I have hiked is the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. I experienced such a profound sense of peace as I hiked deep in this forest. Hoh Rain Forest is home to the “One Square Inch” research project, designed to create a sanctuary for silence in Olympic National Park. One Square Inch of Silence was designated on Earth Day 2005 to protect and manage the natural soundscape in Olympic Park’s backcountry wilderness. The reasoning behind this is that if a loud noise, such as  an aircraft, can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100% noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles around it. Protecting a single square inch of land from noise pollution  may be able to benefit large areas of the park. One Square Inch may be the quietest place in the United States.

Olympic National Park was chosen for One Square Inch because it has a diverse natural soundscape combined with substantial periods of natural quiet. Unlike other national parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or Hawaii Volcanoes, air tourism is undeveloped and roads do not divide park lands.You can experience the natural sounds of Hoh Rain Forest and Olympic National Park in this “Breathing Space” compilation of natural sounds. I use this in the office to block noise, and at other times to just relax.

Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

When I take a group on a hike for one of my classes I introduce experiencing silence as part of the trip. Hiking in groups offers tremendous opportunities to connect with others. More importantly though, it provides freedom from human noise (relatively speaking) and an opportunity to observe the sights and sounds that only nature provides. It also allows time to quiet the mind.

We need to be aware of the amount of noise we make and the impact it can have on others whether in our everyday settings, or in a forest. We can have a similar impact as the One Square Inch project by doing our part to reduce noise. I encourage you to take a holiday from noise, and breath in the true essence of the natural world, silence. Your health depends on it.

Reference

Bell, T., Greene, T., Fisher, J. & Baum, A. (2001) Environmental Psychology. New York: Taylor & Francis.

An Interview with Republic of Korea Secretary of Forestry Won Sop Shin

Won Sop Shin was recently appointed the Secretary of Forestry for the Republic of Korea. Dr. Shin is  professor of social forestry at Chungbuk National University, and serves as Vice President of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM).

Won Sop Shin, Secretary of Forestry for the Republic of Korea Photo courtesy Dr. Shin.

Won Sop Shin, Secretary of Forestry for the Republic of Korea
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin.

South Korea is establishing forest therapy bases similar to what is being utilized in Japan, promoting eco-tourism and providing access to the restorative health benefits of time in nature. Dr. Shin recently took time to answer questions about forests, human health and INFOM.

Describe your background, how you became interested in forests as a career and as a research interest. 

I was basically exposed to forests since the day I was born. I spent my childhood in Jincheon, Chungbuk Province, an area surrounded by rich forests. I began my studies in forestry in 1978 when I entered Chungbuk National University. After graduating from college, I continued my studies in Canada. I earned a master’s degree at the Brunswick University and did my Ph.D. in the University of Toronto, majoring in social forestry (forest recreation), In particular, my area of specialty includes forest recreation and healing. Since 1993, I have been a professor in forestry at Chungbuk National University.

What are the greatest challenges you face as Secretary of Forestry?

Dr. Shin: The Republic of Korea successfully transformed its denuded land into rich forests in less than half a century. It resulted in a dramatic increase in the volume of forest resources. However, compared to most of developed countries, industrial value of Korea’s forest resources remain relatively low and the country lacks forest-related infrastructure such as forest road. In addition, 70% of forests are privately owned, with a large number of small and fragmented forest holdings. This is making forest management difficult in Korea.

Due to high economic growth, demand for forests and forest-related products has been diversified, ranging from conventional timber use to recreation and healing. The Korea Forest Service is establishing forest policies aimed at maximizing the value of forests resources and benefits. The main objective of Korea’s forest policy is to come up with the optimal plan to meet these needs.

What are your top priorities during your time as Forest Minister?

A hiking excursion in the forests of the Republic of Korea Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

A hiking excursion in the forests of the Republic of Korea
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Dr. Shin: With the inauguration of Park Geun-hye Administration, we are working under the vision of “creating a green welfare nation where forests bring happiness to our people”. By establishing a virtuous cycle of various benefits from forests, our goal is to make forests lively places where people live, work and play.  With this background, we will pull efforts to come up with a prospective policy alternative which can maximize the contribution of forests to forest welfare. For example, the Korea Forest Service has been promoting the policy called “From cradle to grave: Life with forests” since 2003. This aims at providing public benefits from forests to people of all ages, encompassing all life-cycles (from prenatal to death). Open to all public, we provide forest kindergarten, camping, education, recreation as well as tree burial services.

Are you establishing forest therapy bases similar to what has been done in Japan? Describe why you are doing this. What process are you using to identify sites, and then certify them? How many would you like to establish? How will these be promoted. Will you do research in these forests?

People enjoying the forests of South Korea. Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

People enjoying the forests of South Korea.
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Dr. Shin: Regarding the selection procedure of forest therapy complexes, the Selection Committee composed of experts from forestry, medicine and environment will thoroughly review the candidate sites which have been previously submitted by local governments.

The construction of the National Baekdu-daegan Forest Therapy Complex, anticipated to become the landmark of forest healing in Korea, is well underway. This complex include the research center on forest healing. It is planned that at least one forest therapy complex will be established in each of the seven different regions of Korea. Further research on therapeutic effects of forest environment, development of therapeutic programs, services and forest education will be carried out in the research centers of these complexes.

Do the people of South Korea have a tradition of spending time in nature? Hiking? What type of programs are offered to encourage people to get outside and explore nature?

Enjoying a hiking excursion in the Republic of Korea Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Enjoying a hiking excursion in the Republic of Korea
Photo courtesy Dr. Shin

Dr Shin: Since the forests make up 2/3 of our land, Korean people naturally took the mountain as a place for their livelihood. Ever since the ancient times, we sought the life within the nature and followed the laws of the nature, such as training our mind and body in the forests.

Recently, due to the continuous building of the national forest-trails (hiking/trekking trails) there are more people enjoying hiking. Also, beside the original vertical-hiking, there has been an increase in people enjoying the horizontal-hiking (around mountain, field, village, etc.) due to the opening of the Jiri Mountain walking paths and trails.

Programs that have been Developed

Forest Commentator Program: This program systematically convey’s forest’s various values and functions to the people and also guides various ways to experience forest.  Number of participants: (2006) 122  (2009) 767,000  (2012) 1,537,000

Forest Kindergarten Program: Provides various forest experiencing opportunities and education in connection with the kindergartens·nurseries. Number of participants: (2008) 81 institutions, 1,300 people  (2012) 3,910 institutions 420,000 people (32 fold increase)

Youth Forest Education Program: A program to provide correct understanding of forests and cultivate forest-loving mind to our youths, in order to manage and conserve our future forest.  Participants: total 690,000 (450,000 elementary school students, 160,000 middleschool students, and 80,000 highschool students)

Teacher’s Training Course for promoting forest education and enhancing capability: Evey year, Government institutions and civil organizations provide to teachers the training program for the forest-education.  

Forest Training Institute’s forest experiencing course for teachers/Forest-loving Boy-scout Teacher’s program: 2,556 participants since ’09.

Supports for Creative Experience Program: With the adoption of the five-day school week system, this program promotes the development of various experience-centered theme-programs, trying to provide supports for the family-centered recreational culture.

Distinctive theme-programs for each recreational forests: total 32 programs

Forest Healing Program: Creation/management of ‘Healing Forest’ to efficiently introduce and provide experiences for forest’s various healing effects. Locations of ‘Healing Forest’: San-um, Chungtae-san (Mt.), Jangsung, and Jangheung

Inclusive program for Disabled People: To provide forest experiences to the disabled, this program operates 19 rooms for reservation in 14 recreational forests.

Hiking/Trekking Experiencing Education for Youth: Via ‘Baekdu Daegan Forest-Eco Tour’, allowing youths to develop natural spirit and also to provide better understandings and patriotism.

What are the most significant threats facing the forests of South Korea? The environment in general?

Dr. Shin: Even recognized by the United Nations, Korea is known for the successful forest-rehabilitation projects. Korea’s forests make up about 64% of our land, and it is forming the basis of the ecosystem as well as providing the shelter for the various species and fauna. Due to the global problem of climate change (global warming), Korean forests’ vitality is also being threatened. Due to the climate abnormalities caused by climate change, there are enlarging trends for forest disasters (forest fire, disease, and pest, etc.), and this became a threat for the Korean forest ecosystem.

Because of the global warming, the plant and vegetation zones are predicted to move, and this will cause major changes and threats in the biodiversity.

Korean Fir tree, one of the typical indigenous Korean plants, is losing its dispersion and original habitat, and plants living in the highlands are in danger of extinction.

To protect forest from threats caused by climate change, the Korea Forest Service is trying to conserve Korea’s biodiversity and forest genetic resources via in and ex-situ conservation, and also via setting the preservation areas.

How do see as the role of INFOM internationally? How can we get researchers from other regions involved in this organization?

Dr. Shin: Lifestyle has changed drastically due to the increase in urbanization and technology development, causing many life-style-related health problems in the modern societies. These unhealthy problems are known to stem from the disconnection with the nature. Therefore, INFOM should play a role in restoring this connection with natural environments, thereby promoting human health, welfare and quality of life. I highlight the need for encouraging experts from different fields of sciences to take part in INFOM activities as well as for expanding research fields.

Concluding Thoughts

Dr.Shin: As forests holds multi-functional values ranging from forestry production, eco-environment to land resources, it is not desirable to manage forests only for improving one particular function. Today, the international society is in pursuit of sustainable forest management to optimize various forest functions for both the present and next generations. In line with this global concept, Korea also continues to manage forests sustainably so as to improve broader multiple functions and values of forest. I am determined to mange our forests in a well-balanced way between resources development and restoration, with the view of contributing to national economy and land development as well as improving the quality of life (through green welfare.).

“Hiking to Experience the Restorative Power of Nature” Class Offered this Fall

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Hiking on the Appalachian Trail near “Beauty Spot” in Tennessee (USA)
Photo by Mark Ellison

Emerging research is revealing that hiking in nature has a powerful restorative impact on psychological and physiological health. The benefits of time spent in nature can improve resiliency and serve as a buffer from the stress of urban environments and hectic work settings.

I will be offering a class this fall (August – October) in a hybrid format on  “Hiking to Experience the Restorative Power of Nature” that will guide participants on how to plan and prepare for a hiking trip that maximizes the health benefits of time spent in nature. We will then get out in nature to experience those benefits! The class will be offered online with two all day Saturday experiential sessions on hiking trails in North Carolina.

Topics covered in the class will include planning a hiking and backpacking trip; selecting appropriate gear and equipment; the principles of Leave No Trace and how to limit the impact on the environment; and safety in the backcountry.  We will review the many health benefits associated with spending time in nature including emerging trends in nature and forest therapy such as the practice of shinrin yoku in Japan. Class participants will learn how to connect to nature and experience the stress reduction and restoration that it offers.

Several guest presenters will share their expertise with the class, including Alan Logan, ND, co-author of the book Your Brain on Nature, and invited faculty for the Harvard School of Continuing Medical Education.

The one credit hour class (PED 171) is offered through Montgomery Community College in Troy, North Carolina. Registration information is available online at http://www.montgomery.edu/students/admissions.html. Please email me for additional information.