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New study reinforces the importance of walking through forests for mental and general health

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I love trees and am not immune to hug­ging them. It may not be ratio­nal, but when I’m near one of these qui­et giants, I feel like they are kin—ancient grand­par­ents, or at least benev­o­lent wit­ness­es of his­to­ry and time.

Every­one prob­a­bly doesn’t feel the same way as I do, but per­haps they should. While being in nature leads to bet­ter health, cre­ativ­i­ty, and even kind­ness, there may be some­thing spe­cial about being among trees.

After all, trees are impor­tant to our lives in many ways. The most obvi­ous is their role in pro­duc­ing the oxy­gen we breathe and seques­ter­ing car­bon diox­ide to help pro­tect our atmos­phere; but sci­ence sug­gests trees pro­vide oth­er impor­tant ben­e­fits, too.

Here are some of the more provoca­tive find­ings from recent research on how trees increase human well-being.

Walking through forests lower levels of anxiety and stress

Prob­a­bly the most well-researched ben­e­fit of nature expo­sure is that it seems to help decrease our stress, rumi­na­tion, and anx­i­ety. And much of that research has been con­duct­ed in forests.

In one recent study, 585 young adult Japan­ese par­tic­i­pants report­ed on their moods after walk­ing for 15 min­utes, either in an urban set­ting or in a for­est. The forests and urban cen­ters were in 52 dif­fer­ent loca­tions around the coun­try, and about a dozen par­tic­i­pants walked in each area. In all cas­es, the par­tic­i­pants walk­ing in a for­est expe­ri­enced less anx­i­ety, hos­til­i­ty, fatigue, con­fu­sion, and depres­sive symp­toms, and more vig­or, com­pared to walk­ing in an urban set­ting. The results were even stronger for peo­ple who were more anx­ious to begin with.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of walk­ing through forests are very sig­nif­i­cant, and for­est envi­ron­ments are expect­ed to have very impor­tant roles in pro­mot­ing men­tal health in the future,” the authors write. Indeed, var­i­ous oth­er stud­ies sug­gest that the prac­tice of “for­est bathing”—deliberately spend­ing time among the woods—can help us deal with the stress­es and strains of urban liv­ing.

In anoth­er recent study, Pol­ish par­tic­i­pants spent 15 min­utes gaz­ing at either a win­ter­time urban for­est or an unforest­ed urban land­scape. The trees in the for­est had straight trunks and no leaves (because of win­ter), and there was no oth­er shrub­bery below the trees—in oth­er words, no green; the urban land­scape con­sist­ed of build­ings and roads. Before and after, the par­tic­i­pants filled out ques­tion­naires relat­ed to their moods and emo­tions. Those who gazed at a win­ter for­est report­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter moods, more pos­i­tive emo­tions, more vig­or, and a greater sense of per­son­al restora­tion after­wards than those who gazed at the urban scene.

It may be that some of these ben­e­fits have to do with how forests affect our brains. One study found that peo­ple liv­ing in prox­im­i­ty to trees had bet­ter “amyg­dala integrity”—meaning, a brain struc­ture bet­ter able to han­dle stres­sors.

These find­ings and many others—including an ear­li­er review of the research—show how even short amounts of time in a for­est can give us a break from our fren­zied lifestyles.

And improve our general health too

Besides help­ing us breathe, being around trees may improve our health in oth­er ways, too.

Stud­ies have shown that spend­ing short amounts of time in forests seems to ben­e­fit our immune sys­tems. Specif­i­cal­ly, one study found that elder­ly patients suf­fer­ing from chron­ic obstruc­tive pul­monary dis­ease expe­ri­enced decreas­es in per­forin and granzyme B expres­sions, as well as decreased pro-inflam­ma­to­ry cytokines—all relat­ed to bet­ter immune function—after they vis­it­ed forests rather than urban areas. Though it’s not clear exact­ly why this would be, a pri­or study sug­gests that trees may improve immu­ni­ty thanks to cer­tain aro­mat­ic com­pounds they release.

Trees also seem to help our heart health. In one study, par­tic­i­pants walked in a for­est one day and an urban envi­ron­ment anoth­er day, and researchers mea­sured how the two walks impact­ed their bod­ies. In com­par­i­son to the urban envi­ron­ment, walk­ing in trees low­ered people’s blood pres­sure, cor­ti­sol lev­els, pulse rates, and sym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem activ­i­ty (relat­ed to stress), while increas­ing their parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem activ­i­ty (relat­ed to relax­ation). All of these phys­i­o­log­i­cal mark­ers are tied to bet­ter heart health, sug­gest­ing that walk­ing in the woods improves car­dio­vas­cu­lar func­tion.

Though it could be that these health ben­e­fits are due less to trees than to nat­ur­al spaces in gen­er­al, New York­ers liv­ing near trees report bet­ter over­all health than res­i­dents liv­ing near green, grassy spaces. And anoth­er study found that women who live in areas affect­ed by tree loss have a high­er risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease than those in unaf­fect­ed areas. One study that tried to quan­ti­fy this health effect con­clud­ed that “hav­ing 10 more trees in a city block, on aver­age, improves health per­cep­tion in ways com­pa­ra­ble to an increase in annu­al per­son­al income of $10,000 and mov­ing to a neigh­bor­hood with $10,000 high­er medi­an income or being 7 years younger.” Clear­ly, there’s some­thing heal­ing about trees.

Trees may make us more generous and trusting

Research sug­gests that nature expe­ri­ences help us to feel kinder toward oth­ers, and many of those stud­ies involve trees.

In one exper­i­ment, researchers asked a group of uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents to look up at either a tall build­ing or a grove of tow­er­ing euca­lyp­tus trees for one minute. They found that stu­dents who stud­ied the trees expe­ri­enced more feel­ings of awe—a sense of won­der and of being in the pres­ence of some­thing larg­er than one­self. After­wards, when one of the exper­i­menters pre­tend­ed to acci­den­tal­ly drop a bunch of pens, the stu­dents who had seen the trees and felt awe helped pick up more pens than those who had looked at the build­ing.

In anoth­er study, researchers found that peo­ple were more will­ing to help some­one who’d lost a glove if they had just spent time walk­ing through a park with trees, rather than if they were near the entrance to the park. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this study, like many oth­ers, doesn’t spec­i­fy the ben­e­fits of trees ver­sus green space in gen­er­al. So, we don’t know the exact role trees play in pro­mot­ing kind and help­ful behav­ior. But there’s a good chance that their pres­ence at least con­tributes to bet­ter social inter­ac­tions.

For all of these rea­sons, I make an almost dai­ly prac­tice of inter­act­ing with trees. Whether it’s just look­ing out my office win­dow or tak­ing a short stroll down the block to vis­it a favorite oak, I like to acknowl­edge the trees around me, often with a quick pat or hug. As research con­tin­ues to grow, I’m sure my tree appre­ci­a­tion will, too.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

The Study:

Psy­cho­log­i­cal Ben­e­fits of Walk­ing through For­est Areas

  • Abstract: This study aimed to clar­i­fy the psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of brief walks through for­est areas. In addi­tion, we aimed to exam­ine the asso­ci­a­tions between psy­cho­log­i­cal respons­es and trait anx­i­ety lev­els. Five-hun­dred-and-eighty-five par­tic­i­pants (mean age, 21.7 ± 1.6 years) were instruct­ed to walk pre­de­ter­mined cours­es through for­est (test) and city (con­trol) areas for 15 min. The Pro­file of Mood State (POMS) ques­tion­naire and State-Trait Anx­i­ety Inven­to­ry were used to assess par­tic­i­pants’ psy­cho­log­i­cal respons­es and trait anx­i­ety lev­els, respec­tive­ly. The results revealed that walk­ing through for­est areas decreased the neg­a­tive moods of “depres­sion-dejec­tion”, “ten­sion-anx­i­ety”, “anger-hos­til­i­ty”, “fatigue”, and “con­fu­sion” and improved the par­tic­i­pants’ pos­i­tive mood of “vig­or” com­pared with walk­ing through city areas. Fur­ther­more, a sig­nif­i­cant cor­re­la­tion was found between par­tic­i­pants’ trait anx­i­ety lev­els and their changes in the sub­scale of “depres­sion-dejec­tion” of POMS after walk­ing through for­est areas. A more effec­tive reduc­tion in the feel­ing of “depres­sion-dejec­tion” after walk­ing through for­est areas was observed for par­tic­i­pants with high trait anx­i­ety lev­els than for those with nor­mal and low trait anx­i­ety lev­els. This study showed the psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of walk­ing through for­est areas and iden­ti­fied a sig­nif­i­cant cor­re­la­tion between psy­cho­log­i­cal respons­es to walk­ing through forests and trait anx­i­ety lev­els.

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2 Responses

  1. Colton Kuhn says:

    I love this write­up. The impor­tance of Green Spaces in cities come to mind as very impor­tant and I hope in the next few years that we can start see­ing more and more Green Spaces being placed in our big cities in the U.S. I live in a large city and per­son­al­ly make a point to go for a hike through the woods at least one time per day and when I start­ed doing this, I noticed a def­i­nite increase in my lev­el of hap­pi­ness and the peace I felt.

    Thanks for putting this togeth­er!

    Colton K.

  2. You are wel­come, Colton.

    Great you enjoyed it!

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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