As if being renewable, storing carbon and contributing to climate change mitigation isn’t enough – trees make you feel better – true! It’s not stretching the point to say your health and well-being are likely to be improved if you walk amongst the trees.
Increasing urbanisation means that people have less access to nature in their daily lives. Australians on average now spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors. This coincides with reports of increasing obesity and nearly half of Australians experience a mental health conditions during their lifetime.
So there is now some solid research reinforcing the not entirely unexpected connection between wellbeing and nature. Yes trees are beneficial, academics at the universities of Melbourne and Tasmania examined 2.2 million messages on Twitter and found that tweets made from parks contained more positive content – and less negativity – than tweets coming from built-up areas.
Why are people in parks likely to be happier? Because parks help them to recover from the stress and mental strain of living in cities, and provide a place to exercise, meet other people or attend special events.
There are certainly sound economic reasons why so many Australians are living in big cities, but it seems there are related health and social problems. According to the experts, cities are becoming the epicentres for chronic, non-communicable physical and mental health conditions at the same time. There is a growing recognition of the crucial role of urban green spaces in helping reduce these health problems.
More than 40 years of research shows that experiences of nature are linked to a remarkable breadth of positive health outcomes, including improved physical health, such as reduced blood pressure and allergies, less deaths from cardio-vascular disease, improved self-perceived general health and improved mental wellbeing.
According to environmental planners at Grifﬁth University, Australian cities are getting hotter, more crowded and noisier, while climate change is bringing more heatwaves. The obvious answer is more air-conditioning, but this brings more carbon emissions, so a better answer is more infrastructure – ‘green infrastructure’, street trees, green roofs, vegetated surfaces and green walls.
Planting trees in parks, gardens or streets has many beneﬁts, helping to cool cities, slowing stormwater run-off, ﬁltering air pollution, providing habitat for birds and animals, making people happier and encouraging walking. According to city planners, shading from street trees can lower surrounding temperatures by up to 6 degrees – or up to 20 degrees over roads. Green roofs and walls can naturally cool buildings, lowering demand for air conditioning.
Although scientists have much evidence that trees and other greenery improve our mood and health, they know less about the actual mechanisms by which this occurs. Japanese research, however, suggests that when we walk through forest we breathe in three substances – beneﬁcial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.
This brings us to forest therapy. This concept is simple. Since most of our evolution happened in green, wild places instead of modern cities full of buildings, cars and computers, spending time amongst trees agrees with our ancient mental and sensory circuitry – and so can make us happier and healthier.
Formal therapeutic practice of regaining health in the forest – complete with studies to measure health effects – began in Japan in the 1980s. The practice there is called shinrin-yoku which roughly translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”.
In the United States forest therapy through the US Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, started in 2012. This group trains forest therapy guides, and is establishing programs nationwide.
So the simple act of taking a walk beneath the trees after dinner, rather than staring at a TV screen can work wonders for your health.