By Tara L. Brown
Spending time in natural settings such as forests has been found to offer many health benefits, influenced by multiple variables, including the type of forest, individual compatibility, and perceived quality of the environment (1–3). These experiences, ranging from visual encounters with natural landscapes to tactile interaction with plants, have profound mental and physical effects.
Direct benefits span both mental and physical well-being. Experiences in natural settings can reduce anxiety and enhance cognitive function, and these effects may be noticeable within short timeframes, such as 30 to 60 minutes (1,2,4). Research has also highlighted the therapeutic effects of forest therapy on mental health conditions such as depression (5). In terms of physical health, there are reductions in risk factors for various diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions (6). Additional research highlights other physiological benefits such as decreased stress hormone levels, reduced blood pressure and pulse rate, and enhanced immune function, including increased anti-cancer proteins in natural killer cells (7,8). Phytoncides, chemical compounds such as a-pinene and d-limonene emitted by conifer trees, have been linked to anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and neuroprotective advantages (9).
The concept of “restorative environments” offers insights into how forests aid stress recovery and mental rejuvenation (1–3). Additionally, “nature connectedness,” a psychological affinity for nature, is associated with improved mental well-being and responsible environmental behaviour (10,11). Forests also function as venues for exercise and social interaction, indirectly elevating public health by reducing obesity rates and enhancing sleep quality (12–14).
Forested areas can offset harmful environmental factors by improving air quality and reducing noise pollution (15). From a demographic standpoint, studies indicate that immigrants, particularly in Vancouver, are less likely to engage in nature-based activities (16,17), highlighting the need for inclusive and adaptable nature therapy programs. Moreover, the biological diversity in these natural settings may offer as-yet-undiscovered health benefits, extending the scope of their impact on well-being (15).
These benefits can manifest within varying time frames and contexts. 5 to 10 minutes of exposure to nature can enhance self-esteem and mood (18). Spending 30 to 60 minutes in a forest setting has been shown to reduce anxiety levels (4) and improve cognitive performance (19). A 90-minute nature walk can decrease rumination (20) and consistent weekly exposure of 3 to 4 hours can yield multiple long-term benefits (21). Synthetic environments offer alternatives for individuals who find it challenging to get outdoors. A 20-minute digital forest therapy session can improve mood (22), and viewing nature photos for a few minutes can bring about positive changes in heart rate and mood (1).
Factors to consider that contribute to negative effects of nature exposure include gender, safety concerns, socioeconomic status, perceptions, physical discomfort and culture (23–26).
Tara L. Brown
PhD Candidate, UBC Faculty of Forestry
Nature Immersion Booklet: https://taratigerbrown.com/self-guided/
1. Ulrich RS, Simons RF, Losito BD, Fiorito E, Miles MA, Zelson M. Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology [Internet]. 1991 Sep 1 [cited 2021 Jun 9];11(3):201–30. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494405801847
2. Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology [Internet]. 1995 Sep 1 [cited 2021 Jun 9];15(3):169–82. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0272494495900012
3. Health Council of the Netherlands. Nature and Health. The influence of nature on social, psychological and physical well-being [Internet]. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands and RMNO, 2004: Health Council of the Netherlands; 2004 Jun [cited 2023 May 26] p. 112. Report No.: publication no. 2004/09E; RMNO publication nr A02ae. Available from: https://www.healthcouncil.nl/binaries/healthcouncil/documenten/advisory-reports/2004/06/09/nature-and-health.-the-influence-of-nature-on-social-psychological-and-physical-well-being/advisory-report-nature-and-health-the-influence-of-nature-on-social-psychological-and-physical-well-being.pdf
4. Tester-Jones M, White MP, Elliott LR, Weinstein N, Grellier J, Economou T, et al. Results from an 18 country cross-sectional study examining experiences of nature for people with common mental health disorders. Sci Rep [Internet]. 2020 Nov 6 [cited 2022 Oct 12];10(1):19408. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-75825-9
5. Rosa CD, Larson LR, Collado S, Profice CC. Forest therapy can prevent and treat depression: Evidence from meta-analyses. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening [Internet]. 2021 Jan 1 [cited 2022 Sep 13];57:126943. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866720307603
6. Tsunetsugu Y, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y. Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan. Environ Health Prev Med [Internet]. 2010 Jan [cited 2022 Jan 27];15(1):27–37. Available from: https://environhealthprevmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1007/s12199-009-0091-z
7. Li Q. Effects of forest environment (Shinrin-yoku/Forest bathing) on health promotion and disease prevention —the Establishment of “Forest Medicine”—. Environ Health Prev Med [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Nov 3];27(0):43–43. Available from: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/ehpm/27/0/27_22-00160/_article
8. Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med [Internet]. 2010 Jan 1 [cited 2021 Feb 16];15(1):9–17. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
9. Stier-Jarmer M, Throner V, Kirschneck M, Immich G, Frisch D, Schuh A. The Psychological and Physical Effects of Forests on Human Health: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2021 Jan [cited 2021 May 28];18(4):1770. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/4/1770
10. Mackay CML, Schmitt MT. Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology [Internet]. 2019 Oct 1 [cited 2022 Sep 5];65:101323. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494418308557
11. Whitburn J, Linklater W, Abrahamse W. Meta-analysis of human connection to nature and proenvironmental behavior. Conservation Biology [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2022 Nov 25];34(1):180–93. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cobi.13381
12. Donovan GH, Butry DT, Michael YL, Prestemon JP, Liebhold AM, Gatziolis D, et al. The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. American Journal of Preventive Medicine [Internet]. 2013 Feb 1 [cited 2022 Sep 19];44(2):139–45. Available from: https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(12)00804-5/fulltext
13. Li Q, Ochiai H, Ochiai T, Takayama N, Kumeda S, Miura T, et al. Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on serotonin in serum, depressive symptoms and subjective sleep quality in middle-aged males. Environ Health Prev Med [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Mar 9];27(0):44–44. Available from: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/ehpm/27/0/27_22-00136/_article
14. Morita E, Imai M, Okawa M, Miyaura T, Miyazaki S. A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. BioPsychoSocial Medicine [Internet]. 2011 Oct 14 [cited 2022 Apr 21];5(1):13. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/1751-0759-5-13
15. Aerts R, Honnay O, Van Nieuwenhuyse A. Biodiversity and human health: mechanisms and evidence of the positive health effects of diversity in nature and green spaces. British Medical Bulletin [Internet]. 2018 Sep 1 [cited 2022 Nov 9];127(1):5–22. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldy021
16. Charles Rodriguez U, Venegas de la Torre MDLP, Hecker V, Laing RA, Larouche R. The Relationship Between Nature and Immigrants’ Integration, Wellbeing and Physical Activity: A Scoping Review. J Immigrant Minority Health [Internet]. 2022 Feb 24 [cited 2022 Jun 27]; Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10903-022-01339-3
17. Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Governments of Canada. 2012 Canadian Nature Survey [Internet]. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers; 2014 p. 189. Available from: https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2014/ec/En4-243-2014-eng.pdf
18. Barton J, Pretty J. What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environ Sci Technol [Internet]. 2010 May 15 [cited 2021 Nov 18];44(10):3947–55. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1021/es903183r
19. Hartig T, Mitchell R, de Vries S, Frumkin H. Nature and Health. Annual Review of Public Health [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2022 Sep 7];35(1):207–28. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182443
20. Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS, Daily GC, Gross JJ. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A [Internet]. 2015 Jul 14 [cited 2022 Sep 13];112(28):8567–72. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4507237/
21. White MP, Alcock I, Grellier J, Wheeler BW, Hartig T, Warber SL, et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep [Internet]. 2019 Jun 13 [cited 2021 Nov 3];9(1):7730. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3
22. Takayama N, Morikawa T, Koga K, Miyazaki Y, Harada K, Fukumoto K, et al. Exploring the Physiological and Psychological Effects of Digital Shinrin-Yoku and Its Characteristics as a Restorative Environment. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2022 Jan 21 [cited 2022 Nov 25];19(3):1202. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8834905/
23. Eisenman TS, Churkina G, Jariwala SP, Kumar P, Lovasi GS, Pataki DE, et al. Urban trees, air quality, and asthma: An interdisciplinary review. Landscape and Urban Planning [Internet]. 2019 Jul 1 [cited 2021 Aug 19];187:47–59. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204618301191
24. Lim PY, Dillon D, Chew PKH. A Guide to Nature Immersion: Psychological and Physiological Benefits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2020 Jan [cited 2022 Apr 25];17(16):5989. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/16/5989
25. Milligan C, Bingley A. Restorative places or scary spaces? The impact of woodland on the mental well-being of young adults. Health & Place [Internet]. 2007 Dec 1 [cited 2022 Sep 18];13(4):799–811. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1353829207000111
26. Nay A, Kahn PH, Lawler JJ, Bratman GN. Inequitable Changes to Time Spent in Urban Nature during COVID-19: A Case Study of Seattle, WA with Asian, Black, Latino, and White Residents. Land [Internet]. 2022 Aug [cited 2022 Sep 19];11(8):1277. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2073-445X/11/8/1277