By Lindsay Seventko, American Forests
Most of us are well aware of what forests do for us — clean our air and water, store carbon and provide miles of beautiful landscapes to explore. But, one benefit that frequently goes under-appreciated is how forests help keep our minds and bodies healthy. While you may feel better after a walk through a forest, that isn’t due to just enjoying a hobby. Here are some of the ways that forests measurably benefit our minds and bodies to help keep us healthy and happy.
Humans have lived out in the natural environment for most of our long existence. Thus, the relatively recent switch (in the scheme of 5 million years!) to indoor living isn’t optimizing our bodies’ ability to thrive. When you get out in a forest, you’re truly revitalizing your mind and body.
Stronger Immune System
For starters, plants and trees in the forest give off phytoncides — airborne chemicals that the plants use to protect themselves from harmful bacteria and fungi. When humans breathe them in, they increase a type of white blood cell known as NK. NK cells boost our immune systems and kill tumor cells, which may help prevent and fight certain types of cancer.
Furthermore, forests aid in relaxation, which lowers blood pressure and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. While exercising in a forest brings maximum benefits, even looking at a forested view helps tremendously. Cortisol levels were more than 13 percent lower in people looking at a forested setting for 20 minutes, versus people looking at an urban setting. People also experienced a 2 percent lowering of blood pressure while walking in a forested area vs. an urban one. The parasympathetic nervous system (which is felt while relaxing), was enhanced by 56 percent while people viewed a forested area and by 102 percent by walking in a forested area.
Why is this so important? Living with too much stress can be extremely damaging to your health. Over time, living with high stress levels can disrupt your body’s natural processes and cause the development of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease and several other issues. Thus, spending time enjoying forests should be a priority not just as a hobby, but also as a method for staying healthy.
Creative Problem Solving
Beyond strictly physical benefits, spending time in forests makes a major difference in creativity and problem solving abilities. After a four-day backpacking trip, group members tested 50 percent higher on a creativity test. Researchers pointed out that the increased creativity may be due to lack of access to technology and not entirely due to the increased time in nature, but the combination’s impact on creative problem solving abilities are clear.
Attention and Focus
Today’s use of technology and multitasking places high demands on attention, making it easily exhausted. Time spent outdoors replenishes our ability to pay attention and concentrate. For example, children who play outdoors in green areas see a reduction in ADHD symptoms compared to children who play the same games indoors.
Forests are incredibly beneficial for countless reasons, but one area that is just beginning to be understood is how much forests physically benefit our minds and bodies. If you’re trying to maintain your health, need a creative solution to a problem or want to fully relax, head to the nearest forest and take in all the beauty and benefits of nature.
“Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health.” DEC NY: n.d.
Wu J and Lanier LL. “Natural Killer Cells and Cancer.” Adv Cancer Res. 2003;90:127-56.
Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18–26. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
“Chronic Stress Puts your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic: n.d.
Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
Kuo, F. E., & Faber Taylor, A. (2004). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. American Journal of Public Health, 94(9), 1580–1586.