Trees: our natural allies for living longer, healthier and happier lives

Tree Canada

Escaping into nature has become a solace for many of us during the last few years. Getting away from the busyness of life, quieting our mind, and being present in the moment, whether to watch and hear the leaves dance in the wind, to feel the freshness of a breeze or the warmth of the sun against our face.

Trees are good for our mental well-being

Instinctively, we all know that being near trees and in a forests makes us feel better, calmer, less stressed, however do we know why?

The idea of being in the forest or practicing forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, as it was first coined in Japan, is a practice of slowly walking through a forest and experiencing it through all your senses. It may sound deceptively simple, and it is, yet the benefits that result are anything but. Spending time in the trees and the forests is just plain good for us, as the growing body of scientific research shows.

In terms of anxiety and depression, it has been found that those who walked for 15 minutes in a forest experienced less symptoms, (and more vigor!), compared to those walking in an urban setting, and spending time in a forest has also been shown to increase the ability to recover from stress.

If we look at levels of cortisol and adrenaline, those infamous indicators of stress, spending time in a forest can decrease those as well! Compared to walking in an urban environment, walking in a forest environment can decrease cortisol levels. Given that stress also inhibits our immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of being in a forest are even further magnified – which is something we all need right now.

Trees are good for our physical health

Exposure to forests also boosts our immune systems. While we breathe in the forest air, it is like being in a natural aromatherapy session. Trees emit airborne chemicals, called phytoncides, used to protect themselves from insects. As we breathe in these phytoncides, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a particular kind of white blood cell, called natural killer (NK) cells. These cells can kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. It has been shown that just after a three-day, two-night forest bathing trip, participants had an increased NK activity for more than 30 days after the trip!

Even more pertinent now, is how forests can actually improve our own lung functioning. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution now kills more than seven million people annually. With an early link being shown between those living in polluted areas suffering higher COVID-19 death rates, ensuring there are enough trees in our urban areas to clean our air is even more paramount.

The intimate connection of trees to our physical health became apparent in the United States from 1990 to 2007, when 15 states monitored disease rates as the emerald ash borer, after decimating over a million trees, was associated with over 6,000 human deaths from illness of the respiratory system and over 15,000 from heart disease. In terms of impacts on human health, trees in urban areas have also been shown to be substantially more important than rural trees due to their proximity to people and the benefits they have of removing air pollution by physically intercepting particulate matter and absorbing gasses through their leaves.

Get your forest Rx

You might ask now, so if trees are so good for me, how much time should I spend in the forest or among the trees? Well, if it were up to us, it would be along the lines of Henry David Thoreau, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Given that the majority of us don’t normally have a four-hour chunk of time at once on a regular basis, it has been found that a “nature pill” dose of at least 20-30 minutes at least three times a week in a place where you feel a sense of connection to nature is beneficial.

So for all these reasons and more, we recommend that you try to make it a daily practice to interact with our tree friends, whether it is looking outside a window, during your walks to work, or visiting your favorite urban park. And don’t forget to thank them daily for everything they do for us.


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