Tree therapy is not just for for the birds

New research claims there are dramatic health benefits associated with regular exposure to trees

Green Cure: The concept of 'forest bathing' has been valued for centuries in Asia as a means of preventing illness and aiding recovery.
Green Cure: The concept of 'forest bathing' has been valued for centuries in Asia as a means of preventing illness and aiding recovery.
Architect Eugene Boyle's 'Garden of Plenty - Sustainable Living' - a multi-layered concept featuring Irish wood that featured at the 2013 Bloom Festival - was highly commended in the Wood Awards Ireland 2014.

William Merivale

A large and rapidly growing body of evidence suggests that people benefit in many ways from being exposed to trees and forests.

This research, largely done in Asia, Europe and Australia, concludes that being in forests, particularly walking and exercising, reduces stress, boosts immunity and calms aggression.

Being in forests also produces positive effects on a range of disorders including obesity, mental health imbalances, social isolation, diabetes, violent behaviour, substance abuse, and even suicide.

In Britain, research has shown that recovery rates improve even if the patients can only view trees from their hospital window.

In one study it was found that in a ward where all patients were recovering from similar abdominal surgery, those on the side of the building with a view of green space and trees recovered more quickly and were discharged on average three quarters of a day sooner than those looking out onto a brick wall.

Moreover, from the first day after surgery the 'green view' patients required a lower dose of analgesic medication.

While green space and a view of nature in general is helpful, where trees are part of the mix the benefits are still more noticeable. They measurably lower blood pressure and stress, and boost the immune system.

Britain's National Health Service has initiated a scheme to create recuperative forests to aid patient recovery, boost staff morale, and provide woodland areas for patients to spend time in during their convalescence.

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Green space

Called NHS Forest, to date the programme has planted over 33,000 trees on 125 sites.

Related research shows strong links to improved community health where the public has access to green space and woodlands.

People are more likely to be physically active, with obvious benefits, where such access exists, while a University of Glasgow study found that premature death rates were also lower. This aspect of trees and woodland is becoming increasingly accepted in western countries as another non-wood benefit of forestry.

In other parts of the world it has long been regarded as an essential component of daily life.

In East Asia - notably China, Japan and Korea - the concept of 'forest bathing' and 'breathing the forest atmosphere' has been valued for centuries in preventing illness and aiding recovery.

Similar practices also have currency in Germany where Kneipp Therapy, which is broadly similar to the Asian concepts, has been practiced for about 150 years.

More recently, the Swiss authorities have started to advocate exercise specifically in forests, rather than in the gym or urban open spaces.

This has become so important that the major health insurance companies there now consider it a form of preventative medicine.

Since time immemorial, of course, indigenous peoples have lived in and with forests all over the world.

They have made medicines from trees and other plants and many communities consider certain trees to be sacred because of the numerous benefits, they provide.

Aboriginal peoples have always believed that everything is connected, that forests and the people are intimately linked.

Moreover they recognise the problems that occur when the link is broken and people are forcibly displaced from their land and forests.

Research is now taking place at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where the Department of Forestry and the School of Population and Public Health have joined forces.

Dr John Innes, Dean of Forestry at UBC, believes that considerable areas of woodland should be managed specifically to improve the physical and mental health of local populations.

Dr Innes cites three theories linking mental health to the natural environment:

•Biophilia - this theory maintains that we have been programmed during the course of evolution to respond positively to natural environments to help us survive and thrive, and where we feel more content and function more effectively;

• Attention Restoration Theory - this holds that the natural environment provides a restorative environment where our brains can 'recharge' when we're tired;

• Psycho-physiological Stress Recovery Theory - this is based on evidence that humans show an immediate positive response to views of nature.

This response causes a rapid reduction in stress levels, blood pressure, muscle tension and heart rate, usually within minutes of the exposure.

While little actual research on this aspect of forestry has been conducted in Ireland, COFORD actively promotes the concept as an integral part of the multi-use view of forestry.

Forest recreation in Ireland is an important part of the overall industry, with visitor numbers to Coillte forests close to 18m per annum, an average 4.5 visits per head of population.

The total economic activity generated by domestic forest users is estimated at €268m, which is over 10pc of the sector's total output.

Further Canadian research has found that the use of visual wood in buildings has a positive effect on health.

Dr David Fell of FP Innovations, a Canadian forest sector research institute, believes that exposure to wood in the built environment is a natural extension of the proven benefits of exposure to forests.

Dr Fell argues that as a species we have not yet adapted successfully to urban living. The results from his research indicate that where wood is a visible component of the built environment, there is a measurable reduction in stress.

It's clear that woodland may well contribute to a longer, healthier and happier life. There are many factors that inform the decision whether or not to plant, but surely this is one that deserves to be high on the list.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email:


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