Forests work wonders for your health

28 June 2016
Taikametsät tekevät ihmeitä terveydelle

A forest excursion takes your mind off everyday worries and gives you a break from sitting down. Researchers and well-being entrepreneurs have even started to speak of ‘health forests’.

Forests make you feel good. Many Finns know this from experience, but researchers are currently trying to find specific proof of the matter. Professor Liisa Tyrväinen works for Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and is currently exploring how nature affects the human body and mind.

“There is strong evidence that nature refreshes people and promotes recovery from stress. Nature improves our mood and attention,” Tyrväinen says. She bases her statements on Finnish and international surveys and experiments comparing people’s well-being in different environments.

“Stress hormones, blood pressure levels and pulse rates are reduced when they spend time in forests,” Tyrväinen says. Spending time in a natural environment takes our mind off problems. But how does it work? How do fresh air and a peaceful environment affect us? What about colours, shapes, sounds and smells? There is still plenty of research to be done, but evidence already shows that even a photograph of a landscape has a soothing effect on us.

The environment has a clear impact on the mood of urban dwellers if they spend more than five hours a month in a nearby green space, such as a park, or visit a forest outside the city two to three times a month. Signs of recovery have been identified after spending just 15 minutes in a green area.

Healing for the body and soul

Nature’s impact on morbidity and mortality in the long term has been researched globally in large cities, and studies are also being carried out in Helsinki, Finland.

“The results indicate that in suburban areas forests have a positive impact on our health at the population level. Spending more time outdoors and exercising are among the reasons for this positive impact,” Tyrväinen explains.

Finnish scientists are also investigating a concept called the biodiversity hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, it is important for people to maintain contact with diverse environments and their microbes. A study carried out in North Karelia consisted of comparing the environments in which healthy and allergic youths had grown up. The results showed that the healthy youths had mainly grown up near forests and agricultural areas, unlike the allergic youths.

Tyrväinen hopes that the health effects of forests will be taken into account in preventing illnesses and in supporting their treatment. A research group and Sipoo health centre have launched a collaboration project last autumn during which people suffering from type 2 diabetes or mild depression will be taken into natural environments as part of their treatment.

A shortcut to peace of mind

Environmental psychologist Kirsi Salonen lives in the middle of a forest and also takes her psychotherapy clients on forest excursions. The purpose of the excursions it not only to improve mental health, but also to facilitate an unreserved therapist-client relationship.

How does a forest experience affect an inexperienced forest-goer?

“We often think that people who are familiar with plants and animals are nature people who enjoy spending time in the wild, and that ignorant city-dwellers will not be able to benefit from the effects nature has on our well-being. There doesn’t seem to be evidence to support this view. In fact, you don’t even have to be particularly fond of nature for it to have a positive effect on you,” explains Salonen.

Some like looking at scrubby pines, whereas others enjoy listening to the wing strokes of birds flying by. Some are attracted by beaches or hills, whereas others enjoy trekking in thick spruce forests. In a new project about to be launched, the research group led by Professor Liisa Tyrväinen plans to determine how preferences impact recovery and what kinds of forests are best for recovering from stress. One of the objectives is to specify the criteria for a health forest.

A forest can also be a scary place to someone who is not used to spending time in nature. “Man-made routes and signs are needed for the forest to feel safe.”

Profit from recreational use

In Japan and South Korea, some forests have already been classified as health forests where health forest guides and forest therapists bring their clients. The Visit Finland organisation promotes tourism in Finland and has included forests in its FinRelax concept. The concept covers all aspects of a well-being holiday from sauna and food to clean water. The Green Care Finland association represents businesses producing well-being and health services related to nature and strives to promote collaboration and research in the field.

Tyrväinen believes that service businesses and forest owners could create a new market through active collaboration and turn the recreational value of forests into a profitable business.

“Forest owners who have biodiverse and attractive forests relatively close to tourism-related services may have a good chance of benefiting from this business idea,” Tyrväinen says. She explains that the tourism and recreational value of forests can be particularly great near tourism sites in Northern Finland, even in areas where felling is not worthwhile.

“Natural Resources Institute Finland is currently exploring operating models that would be suitable for commercial forests in the Ruka-Kuusamo area. These operating models would provide forest owners with compensation if they maintained the forest landscapes near hiking routes and rest areas intact. The increase in nature tourism means that commercial forests will also be needed for tourism purposes, particularly in Southern Finland. This will emphasise the need for planning and the reconciliation of different forest uses.”

Take a stroll in the Finnish forests at upmforestlife.com >

Marianna Salin

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