Promoting health through forests: different practices and benefits

Over the last 15 years, Green Care has emerged has a new and distinctive field of study and practice. However, while the benefits of nature on health and wellbeing have been known for centuries, it is only recently that they have been studied consistently.

Green Care is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of activities done in a natural environment that can positively contribute to health, wellbeing, social inclusion and education of people with different needs. In this framework, Forest-based care includes those interventions promoting health through the contact with the forest ecosystem and its elements and have been demonstrated to be beneficial for our physical, mental and social health (Doimo et al., 2020; Hansen et al., 2017; Li Q., 2019). In first instance, spending time in contact with a forest ecosystem allow our mental resources to regenerate by increasing self-esteem, concentration, positive thoughts, decreasing fatigue, depression and anxiety levels and enhancing relational skills and positive attitudes towards the environment ( Song et al., 2016; Bielinis et al., 2019; Kim et al., 2021) . It is also thanks to the relaxation that happens at psychological level, that our body slows down and relaxes. Decreased blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol concentrations and prefrontal cortex activity have been proved after spending time walking or observing the forest (Li et al., 2011; Yu et al., 2020). At the same time, promoters and users of Forest-based care initiatives are often moved towards the research of more sustainable lifestyles and of a deeper connection with the environment.

What are the main types of Forest-based care practices?

In this article we explore the most common types of Forest-based practices and therapies, in order to better understand how forests and woodlands can have positive impacts on health and wellbeing.

  • Forest bathing

Forest bathing is surely the most common one. Based on Shinrin-yoku, a traditional Japanese practice, forest bathing involves immersive sessions in the forest atmosphere. These sessions may involve walks at slow pace, doing breath or Qi Gong exercises, sitting and observing, or even simply spending time in a forest. Extensive research shows that forest bathing can have a positive impact on symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, and even on the immune system (Li et al., 2008; Park et al., 2010; Kotera et al., 2020). After a session of forest bathing, people usually experience a calming sensation and general feelings of mental and physical wellbeing.

  • Green exercise

Under the term Green exercise we include all those physical activities carried out in natural settings. They are usually organized and promoted in collaboration with the Health and Social authorities and grass roots organizations for health promotion and prevention. Green exercise typically involves physical exercises, such as Nordic walking or running, and it is led by an instructor. These activities can be addressed to all or be targeted to specific groups of people at risk for non-communicable and chronic diseases. Green exercise is often practiced with sedentary people, elderly people, and people with high body mass weight. While the positive effects of exercising are well known, the combination of exercise and natural settings can boost some of the effects. In particular, it positively impacts self-esteem and mood, and increases the engagement in the activity itself. Green exercise practices demonstrate significant improvements for people with severe depressive or social anxiety symptoms (Barton et al., 2009; Gladwell et al., 2013).

  • Ecotherapy

Ecotherapy  is based on the notion of “mutual healing and growth”. It emphasizes the reciprocity between human and nature to promote an individual’s wellbeing. Ecotherapy sessions include  experimental nature-based activities designed by the eco-therapists to connect people with  environmental action and collective responsibility. Indeed, besides enhancing one’s health, these practices can have positive impacts for the environment and the community by promoting positive action (Summers & Vivian, 2019; Chaudhury & Banerjee, 2020).

  • Wilderness therapy

Wilderness therapy uses immersion in natural and wild settings to provide a range of health and personal development opportunities. It is based on two elements, using nature as co-therapist and second using therapeutic activities, including formal therapy, in wild locations. Wilderness therapies are supervised by trained health professionals. Studies on this type of therapy show a great restorative effect arising from experiences in nature (Hartig et al., 1991), in addition to improved sustained attention and feelings of peacefulness. Moreover, challenges faced in nature can enhance self-awareness, self-responsibility and cooperative behaviour. This type of therapy is widespread in the USA and it is commonly used with young people at risk, especially those experiencing or having experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment.

To learn more, read our market outlook on forest-based care. This outlook provides interesting insights on the development of forest-based initiatives, and on potential business opportunities provided in this field.



References

  • Bielinis, E.; Bielinis, L.; Krupińska-Szeluga, S.; Łukowski, A.; Takayama, N. The Effects of a Short Forest Recreation Program on Physiological and Psychological Relaxation in Young Polish Adults. Forests 201910, 34.
  • Chaudhury P, Banerjee D. “Recovering With Nature”: A Review of Ecotherapy and Implications for the COVID-19 Pandemic. Front Public Health. 2020;8:604440. Published 2020 Dec 10. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2020.604440
  • Doimo, I.; Masiero, M.; Gatto, P. Forest and Wellbeing: Bridging Medical and Forest Research for Effective Forest-Based Initiatives. Forests 202011, 791.
  • Gladwell, V. F., Brown, D. K., Wood, C., Sandercock, G. R., & Barton, J. L. (2013). The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme physiology & medicine2(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-7648-2-3
  • Hansen, M.M.; Jones, R.; Tocchini, K. Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 201714, 851
  • Hartig T, Mang M, Evans GW. Restorative Effects of Natural Environment Experiences, Environment and Behavior, 1991, vol.23, no.1, pp.3-26
  • Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Shimizu T, Li YJ, Wakayama Y, Kawada T, Ohira T, Takayama N, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. “A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects”, Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents, 2008, vol. 22, no. 1, p.45
  • Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T. et al. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med 15, 18 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
  • Song, C.; Ikei, H.; Miyazaki, Y. Physiological effects of nature therapy: A review of the research in Japan. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 201613, 781.
  • Summers JK, Vivian DN. Ecotherapy – A Forgotten Ecosystem Service: A Review. Front Psychol. 2018 Aug 3;9:1389. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01389. PMID: 30123175; PMCID: PMC6085576.
  • Kim, J.G.; Jeon, J.; Shin, W.S. The influence of forest activities in a university campus forest on student’s psychological effects. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 202118, 2457.
  • Kotera, Y., Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. Effects of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy on Mental Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Int J Ment Health Addiction (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-020-00363-4
  • Yu, C.P.; Lin, C.M.; Tsai, M.J.; Tsai, Y.C.; Chen, C.Y. Effects of short forest bathing program on autonomic nervous system activity and mood states in middle-aged and elderly individuals. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 201714, 897.

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