Maybe those tree huggers are on to something. Have you hugged a tree lately? Do it. There’s magic in it, I’m sure. To walk through a forest, or woodland, is to enter another world. Our senses are enlivened by the vivid and verdant palettes, and the synergy of all of this life-giving nature calls every cell in our bodies to attention. It’s like we’re home. Where we’ve always belonged. And there’s a sense of soundness and refuge as these gentle giants tower over us like old souls that know so much more than we do. But don’t take my word for it. In recent studies, the science shows that there is truth and fact in these poetic and sentimental musings. Yes, trees are good for our mental and physical wellbeing.
As if absorbing carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen, preventing soil decay, mitigating climate change, providing protection and habitats for animals, and regulating our water supply and quality wasn’t enough. We are continuing to discover life-altering treasures that these sacred ecosystems hold for us on a personal level. Research is proving over and over again that exposure to trees and forests has real health and wellness benefits we really don’t want to miss out on.
Trees release phytoncides (antimicrobial essential oils) that protect them from germs. By breathing these in, we are stimulating our bodies to increase the number and activity of white blood cells called natural killer cells (NK). A study in Japan revealed that after spending a two-night trip in a forest, a group of twelve men showed a 50% increase in NK activity.
A forest therapy study of 26 male office workers revealed that systolic and diastolic blood pressure was significantly decreased during their time in the forest, and these levels were maintained for 5 days after the study.
Studies have shown that even being able to see trees from a hospital window has improved patients’ recovery rates.
Exposure to these phytoncides has also resulted in decreased stress, with studies showing the concentrations of adrenaline and the stress hormones, noradrenaline, in urine decreasing. Other studies have also shown that when compared to urban walks, forest walks can yield a 12.4% decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol.
Research reveals that when spending time in nature, our bodies release hormones that are associated with the pursuit of joy, connection with calm, and avoiding threats. Also, in a woodland activity program for people with early-stage dementia, woodlands were found to promote mental wellbeing, increase spatial awareness, and provide a sense of meaning and identity.
Breathing in the phytoncides released by the trees around you can also help to improve sleep and relaxation.
In a study in Utah, participants immersed in nature for 3 days experienced a 50% improvement in creative problem solving.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese practice of bathing in the forest atmosphere and taking in the forest surroundings through our senses. For centuries, people have experienced a sense of comfort and calm from being around trees, their scent, the sunlight through the leaves, and the fresh air. And this practice is about opening up our senses and connecting our bodies and minds with the natural world. This restores our mood, gives us energy, and rejuvenates us. And it is the study and practice of this process that has come to reveal all of these significant mental and physical health benefits.
So now that we know that spending time around trees is really good for us, can we take the benefits further by also being physically active around these healing heroes? That’s a ‘hell yes’.
We already know that physical exercise gives us a good dose of endorphins, significantly improves our mental and physical health, and helps us to sleep better. It’s a powerful source of preventative healing. But where we exercise can also make a very relevant difference to our overall wellbeing. So it makes complete sense to combine the two. Forest bathing plus exercise equals even more benefits.
Research shows that regular use of forests and parks for exercise, as opposed to gyms, can reduce the risks of poor mental health. Exercising outdoors and around trees can help to improve self-esteem, improve mood, and reduce anxiety disorders and depression.
Other than the amazing physical health benefits we’ve already discussed, there are also other physical benefits that can really help you to get the most out of your body. Mixed terrains help you to become more agile and balanced as your body has to respond to the uneven ground. Varying natural inclines help to work your muscles in a different way and build endurance. Wind resistance can help you to burn more calories.
And so we begin to see that it’s all connected. If our forests are suffering, so are we. It is paramount that we love these natural spaces and take care to preserve them.
We love what Creating Tomorrow’s Forests are doing in the UK. On a mission to plant trees and create diverse woodland habitats, they are working to build and preserve our precious healing hideaways and the nature that inhabits them. And they are giving people a cool way to get involved and plant trees for the cause. It’s so close to our hearts that we’ve teamed up with them to offer our Fitlink users a cool reward that gives back to the planet.
We spoke to Dr. Simone Webber (ecologist and member of the Creating Tomorrow’s Forests team), for her insight on how forests benefit us and why we should protect them.
Studies have shown the benefits have a long lasting effect as well. You can go and immerse yourself in the woodlands on one day, and still be experiencing the benefits up to 30 days later.Dr. Simone Webber, Ecologist.
She also went on to say that they are making sure that the woodlands they are creating are thriving and dynamic for wildlife. Studies also show that it’s not just about the trees, but the more biodiverse a woodland is, the greater the impact you’re going to get out of it. There’ll be so many different plants, so many different shapes and textures, various birds that you can see and hear, and so on. Even if we’re not aware of it on a conscious level, on a sub-conscious level we absorb that sense of being somewhere a bit more wild and natural.
Losing biodiversity and cutting down trees is not good for any of us. For too long we’ve thought of our wellbeing as being separate from the natural environment, but it’s all interlinked.Dr. Simone Webber, Ecologist.
During this pandemic, we’ve seen a massive increase in people engaging with wild spaces. Because they can’t go anywhere. So they’ve begun to explore their natural surroundings a lot more. Which is fantastic. And we all hope it persists. Because connecting with those spaces makes people want to protect them.
So the evidence is resounding. Trees are good for our mental and physical wellbeing. I wonder what other magical mysteries they will reveal to us in years to come? But for now, we know we need to spend more time around them. And we know we need to protect them like our lives depended on it.
Did you know this?
Trees talk to each other. Tree and plant roots are all interlinked by a mycorrhizal network. This is actually the fungi (mushrooms) creating a huge underground network that links all the trees together. They exchange nutrients and water, and so on. But that network also transmits signals from one tree to the next. And sometimes they’re helpful signals. For example, in Africa, they know that if a giraffe comes along and starts browsing an acacia tree, all of a sudden all of the surrounding acacia trees will start producing a tannin that the giraffes don’t like. To stop them from attacking it. But trees also compete with each other. There are some species of trees that will actually misfire signals and actively try and damage other trees. It’s fascinating.Dr. Simone Webber, Ecologist.