Why Living Near Forests Can Benefit Your Mental Health
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. According to the United Nations, 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2018. The UN expects this figure to increase to 68% by 2050.
Living in urban areas has several advantages. People have access to better amenities, there are more employment opportunities, there is easier access to healthcare, there is better public transport, there are better education opportunities, and so on.
Despite these benefits, however, living in cities and urban areas could be having a negative impact on your mental health, if the many studies around this topic are anything to go by.
Some studies show that regular infringement of personal space, which is common for those living in cities and urban areas, is perceived as a threat by the brain and makes people feel more stressed.
Yet another study shows that some of the environmental factors that are a constant part of urban life increase the chances of suffering from chronic stress. These include factors such as noise from traffic and constant contact with strangers.
Other studies have also found that people living in urban environments are 56% more likely to suffer from schizophrenia, as well as mood and anxiety disorders.
The solution to some of these problems can be found by spending time in nature. It is common knowledge that spending time in nature and breathing in the fresh air in areas surrounded by trees can improve our sense of wellbeing and lift our moods.
This is why most cities around the world have invested in building parks and other urban green spaces.
For decades, the Japanese have even practiced something known as shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” with the aim of improving their health and general wellbeing.
The practice of forest bathing is all about spending time in forests and other wooded environments.
This could either be done by taking a walk in the woods, or even sitting somewhere in a wooded environment, provided you are in close proximity to trees.
But just how effective are these methods? Does spending time in environments with trees have any actual benefit to your mental health?
GERMAN EXPERIMENT SHOWS LINK BETWEEN TREES AND MENTAL HEALTH
In a bid to answer the above question, a group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany decided to conduct an experiment to determine the effect of wooded environments and urban green spaces not just on perceived wellbeing, but on the actual structure of the brain.
The study was based on the theory of brain plasticity, which assumes that the structure and function of the brain can be affected by environmental factors.
The study involved 341 elderly adults from the city of Berlin. All the participants were between the ages of 61 and 82.
During the study, the scientists asked the participants to undertake various memory and reasoning tests. While taking the tests, MRI scans were performed on the participants to determine the structure of various brain regions, and particularly the amygdala, which is in charge of processing stress and anxiety.
Previous studies had found that people living in urban areas tend to have higher levels of stress activity in the amygdala, and therefore, the scientists wanted to know if the area of the city in which people lived had an influence on the health of their amygdala.
To do this, the researchers combined the MRI data with geo-information from the subjects’ places of residence.
The results from the study were astounding. The researchers found that participants who lived close to a forest tended to have healthier amygdala structure.
They particularly found out that participants living with 1km from a forest had the healthiest amygdala structures.
The healthier the physiological structure of the amygdala, the more capable a person is to cope with stress.
The researchers gauged the physiological health of the amygdala by checking factors like the level of activity in that part of the brain, as well as the volume of grey matter within this part of the brain.
The findings remained valid even when the researchers accounted for other factors that could potentially influence the results, such as income levels and level of education.
While the researchers did not identify the factors in forests that affect the structure of the amygdala, they suggest that one of the major reasons behind such findings could be the fact that forests are typically found towards the outer edges of urban areas, where there is lower population density (lower chances of contact with strangers and having people infringe on your personal space), less noise from traffic, and lower levels of air pollution.
The researchers were also quick to warn that what their study proved is correlation between forests and healthier amygdala structure (and thus lower likelihood of suffering from stress and anxiety), not causation.
Therefore, there is the possibility that people with healthier amygdala structure are more likely to prefer living in areas close to forests.
However, based on their knowledge, the researchers acknowledge that this is highly unlikely.
Aside from this German study on the effects of forests on the structure of the amygdala, several other studies have found that forests – and green spaces by extension – have a positive impact on our mental health and general wellbeing. Some of the other benefits of forests and green spaces on our mental health include:
LIVING NEAR TREES DECREASES THE CHANCES OF SUFFERING FROM STRESS, ANXIETY, AND DEPRESSION
Several other studies have found that living close to trees can reduce the likelihood of suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression.
In one study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin decided to evaluate the effect of trees on mental wellness by comparing the mental health of those with trees near their homes to that of those living around more concrete.
The study, which had over 2500 participants from Wisconsin, started by evaluating the health of the participants and then collected satellite images from around the residences of the participants to show the amount of trees and vegetation in these areas.
The researchers found out that those who suffered from less stress, anxiety, and depression were more likely to be living in areas with trees near their homes.
Surprisingly, the findings of the study held true even when the researchers accounted for factors such as income levels, level of education, and even race.
They noted that a low income earner living near a logging road was more likely to be happier than a high income earner living in a treeless block in the middle of the city.
Another study conducted by researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) also found that urban dwellers living in areas with more trees within a walking distance from their homes are less likely to develop psychological distress and are more likely to have better overall health compared to people without trees within walking distance.
In the study, the researchers monitored the health of over 46,000 participants living in Newcastle, Sydney, and Wollongong for a period of six years.
All the participants were aged 45 years or older.
While other studies had demonstrated that green space was beneficial for mental health, with this study, the researchers wanted to find out whether the kind of green space had an impact on the benefits gained from it.
During the statistical analyses, the researches accounted for the other factors that could influence the findings, including things such as sex, age, level of education, employment status, income levels, and relationship status.
Their results showed that the type of green space indeed has a significant impact on the mental health benefits gained from it.
The study found that in areas with a tree canopy equal to or exceeding 30%, adults living in these areas were 31% less likely to develop psychological distress, and 33% less likely to rate their general health as “poor” or “fair.”
Ironically, people living near urban green spaces without a tree canopy did not seem to show the same benefits.
In another study carried out in Japan, researchers wanted to find the effect of spending time in forest environments on mood and stress.
In the study, 585 young Japanese adults were instructed to walk for 15 minutes, either in forest environments (test group) or in an urban setting (control group).
The urban and forest settings were distributed across 52 locations across the country, and for each location, there was a group of about 12 participants taking the walk.
After the 15 minute walk, the researchers used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and Profile of Mood State (POMS) questionnaires to evaluate the trait anxiety levels and the psychological responses of the participants.
The study found out that all the participants who walked in forest settings had less fatigue, tension and anxiety, confusion, anger and hostility, and depression-dejection symptoms compared to those who walked in urban settings.
In addition, they also exhibited more vigor compared to those who took their walks in urban settings. The results were similar for all the 52 locations.
For participants who were more anxious before taking the walk, the benefits of taking a walk in the forest were even more pronounced.
This shows that forest environments have a very significant and positive impact on one’s mental health, and is proof of the positive effects and benefits of the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
In yet another study, young Polish adults were asked to gaze at an urban forest during winter or an unforested urban environment for a period of 15 minutes.
Since the experiment was done in winter, the trees in the forest did not have any foliage, and there were no shrubs underneath the trees.
Basically, the forest consisted of straight tree trunks and no green vegetation. Those in the other group looked at urban landscapes with roads and buildings.
After 15 minutes of observing the different landscapes, the participants were then asked to fill questionnaires asking about their emotions and moods.
The researchers found out that those who looked at the winter forest environments had more vigor, more positive emotions, better moods, and a greater sense of restoration compared to those who looked at urban landscapes.
This experiment shows that trees themselves and nature, and not just the green color of their leaves and other vegetation, have a positive impact on our metal wellbeing compared to urban environments.
TREES ARE GOOD FOR BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
During childhood, the human brain undergoes a lot of growth and development, and as a parent, you are probably very careful about any factors that might affect the cognitive development of your child.
You make sure they attend the best schools, hire tutors for them, purchase learning gadgets for them, and do anything else you can do to make sure that their brains develop properly.
However, you might not have considered one factor that could be impacting their brain development – proximity and access to green spaces.
Various studies have indicated that during childhood, environmental factors have a huge impact on the development of the brain, and one of these studies, authored by Wendee Nicole, shows that submersing children in the green, natural world can result in positive changes in the children’s brains.
In the study, the researchers studied a group of 253 children aged 7 to 9 years and tracked the changes in the brain structures of these children and compared these changes to the amount of exposure the children had to vegetation.
To do this, the researchers started by defining a green exposure index which they used to measure the amount of natural vegetation (parks, trees, and forests) that the children were exposed to in the areas they lived.
The researchers then performed MRIs to the children to determine the size and structure of specific regions within their brain.
The students were also asked to take a computer test to measure their cognitive skills.
Using the data from the test and the MRIs, the researchers could determine the relationship between cognitive development and exposure to natural vegetation.
From the study, the researchers found that children who were regularly exposed to natural vegetation (those who had natural vegetation in close proximity to their homes) were more likely to have greater brain development and exhibit better cognitive skills. It is, however, still not clear to the researchers how natural vegetation affects brain development among children.
However, there are some limitations to the findings of this study.
For instance, the researchers did not account for other environmental factors that could affect the brain development of the children, such as interaction with parents, family background, and so on.
In addition, the study only focused on the quantity of the natural vegetation, without paying any attention to the quality of the vegetation.
Therefore, it is not clear whether a beautiful urban park will have the same impact on a child’s brain development as an abandoned green space full of weeds.
All the same, the findings of the research provide proof that living close to nature has a significant and positive impact on brain development and cognitive skills.
Another similar study also evaluated the effect of playing on grass and other green spaces on the second, third, and fourth grade kids.
The study, which took place between January 2012 and March 2013, involved 2953 children from 36 schools in Barcelona.
Every three months during this period, the children were given computerized tests meant to measure their working memory, superior working memory, fluid intelligence, and inattentiveness.
The researchers then used high resolution satellite data to determine the amount of outdoor greenness around their homes, their schools, and the routes they used on the commute to and from school. The researchers also tracked the amount of air pollution caused by traffic around each school.
At the end of the test period, the researchers found out that the children who had a higher exposure to green space performed better in these tests and exhibited a higher level of attentiveness compared to the kids with low exposure to green space.
The greatest association between performance in the tests and green space came from the amount of green space in the schools the children attended.
In other words, if a child lives in an area with little green space, but attends a school with lots of green space, the child is likely to still perform well in the tests.
This can be attributed to the fact that children spend a huge part of their daily active time at school.
TREES AND NATURE IMPROVE OUR SHORT TERM MEMORY
This might sound surprising, but spending time near forests, trees and nature can also help you improve your memory, and there are scientific studies to prove this.
In one such study, researchers from the University of Michigan, led by Marc G. Berman wanted to test the effect of interactions with natural versus urban environments on cognitive function. The subjects in the study were 38 students from the University of Michigan.
In the study, the participants were first asked to take part in a 35 minute task that involved repeating a list of random numbers to the researchers in reverse order.
The aim of this task was to immerse the participants in a cognitively demanding task that required them to rely on their short term memory.
After performing the task for 35 minutes, the participants were then asked to take a 50 – 55 minute walk near the campus.
Before going out for the walk, they were divided into two randomly selected groups. One group went for a walk at the Ann Arbor Arboretum, while the other group was required to take a walk along Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor.
The routes for the walks were predefined to ensure that each participant walked a total of 2.8 miles.
They were issued with a map showing the route to follow, and all of them were tracked using GPS devices to ensure that they stuck to their specified routes.
After the walk, the participants were asked to once again repeat the 35 minute task of repeating a list of random numbers to the researchers in reverse order.
A week after the experiment, the participants came back again and repeated the whole procedure, starting with the reverse-order task, going for a walk, and then repeating the reverse-order task.
This time round, however, the participants who previously went on a walk in the park walked in downtown Ann Arbor, while those who had previously walked in the streets took a walk in the park.
Following the experiment, the researchers found that after taking a walk amongst the trees in Ann Arbor Arboretum, the participants showed close to 20% improvement in performance in the reverse-order task.
However, there was no improvement among those who went on a walk along Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor.
A few weeks later, the experiment was repeated. This time round, however, instead of being allowed to go out for a walk, the participants were asked to stare at some pictures without leaving the lab.
One group was shown pictures of urban landscapes, while the other group was shown pictures of natural scenery. After looking at the pictures for a while, the participants were asked to redo the reverse-order task.
Once again, the participants who looked at pictures of nature demonstrated improved performance when asked to redo the test.
While the performance improvements were not as high as for those who actually went for a walk in nature, they nevertheless performed better than those who looked at pictures of buildings and roads.
The results of this experiment are proof that spending time in nature, or even looking at pictures of nature, can help improve your short term memory.
The findings also echo those of another research by Rita Berto, who also found out that looking at pictures of natural environments helped improve cognitive function.
All the studies discussed above are proof that trees, forests, and green spaces are good for your mental health, with the key benefits being a lower chance of suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression, improving your short term memory and cognitive function, and boosting brain development and cognitive skills in your children.
Yet, besides the “green therapy” there is a worldwide trend to pay attention to mental health using mHealth apps. Thus, this is important to combine a healthy lifestyle with HealthTech. This is a good idea to take a look at healthcare app development as a path to provide new cool values to healthy lifestyle fans.
Therefore, if you feel like life is becoming too stressful for you, or if you are currently house hunting, consider finding a place that is close to a forest.
However, if that proves to be difficult, at least try and find a place with a public park or other urban green space in close proximity. Your amygdala, and your general mental health will thank you for it.
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