Your Forest and Your Well Being
Type Media Article
Forests can provide a wonderful setting, allowing you to connect with nature and experience a range of positive benefits for the body, mind and soul. Teagasc Forestry Advisors John Casey, Jonathan Spazzi and Tom Houlihan give more details.
With Covid 19 restrictions still in place, many people are feeling confined and some may feel that they are spending a little too much time in their own “head space”. Is there a close-to-home natural resource within current travel limits that can offer an escape from the “daily grind”- a location to deliver improved health and wellbeing? The simple answer may be a nearby public forest for local walkers or your own forest for individual owners. Forests can provide a wonderful setting, allowing you to connect with nature and experience a range of positive benefits for the body mind and soul, while still observing the 2 metre social distancing guidelines. Statistics show that up to 38 million visits are paid to many Irish forest locations each year; why not join the growing trend of connecting and ‘bathing’ in this wonderful close-to-home amenity?
Good for your body
There is irrefutable evidence of the effectiveness regular physical activity in the primary and secondary prevention of several potential chronic diseases. These include cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and osteoporosis. According to the HSE, being physically active can reduce your chances of developing a chronic disease by up to 50% as well as reducing the risk of premature death by 20 to 30%. Why not get fit in the forest and improve your life?
Recreation and amenity benefits are among the most important beneficial ‘cultural services’ provided by Ireland’s forests. Many forest owners already have a wonderful resource in their backyard. Spending time in your own forest can be very beneficial to physical and mental health. From a forest management perspective, developing and maintaining safe and inviting access paths that brings you through your farm forest can be a very worthwhile. It allows you to regularly check and maintain the health and progress of your trees. As an added benefit, you can enjoy some moderate exercise as you (safely) prune the side branches along a new access path!! Bearing in mind the often solitary experience of being in a wood, it is always advisable to bring a charged mobile phone, inform someone where you are going and when you expected to return.
Other activities closely associated with trees and forests include nature viewing, nature photography or birdwatching. These can easily be incorporated into a new health regime in your forest. You can also ‘whet the appetite’ and open a magical door of discovery for your family and friends and discover what resides in your forest using a simple wildlife camera. These is a motion activated outdoor camera which can be secured to a well-located tree along a footpath, near the forest edge or in areas purposely set aside for biodiversity enhancement capturing images of our more elusive wildlife.
Pine marten- in a pine, naturally!!
It might be surprising to realise how mosses, fungi, insects, birds and animal find habitat within or near the growing trees, be they conifers or broadleaves. Recently published research in the Journal of Applied Ecology reveals how even the smallest farm-woodland punches well above its weight with regard to local wildlife diversity as well as a wide range of other ecosystem services, essential our society’s’ wellbeing.
Good for your head
Physical activity and recreation use in nature has also been confirmed as inducing psychological improvements in mood, concentration and attention, reduced mental fatigue and reductions in stress-related diseases. Many studies demonstrate the benefits that walking in natural environments can deliver for young and old, especially if trees are present, by increasing positive mood, concentration and mental performance in cognitive tests. A 2016 survey of visitors to Irish forests found that the main psychological well-being benefit experienced by forest visitors was mental relaxation. This relaxation can be considered synonymous with psychological restoration, a recognised benefit of spending time in nature, which has been described as a product of emotional interaction with the natural environment. A programme of forest walks organised for people suffering from depression found that those participants registered improvements immediately following the visits. They also realised a significant uplift in mood following therapy for which these visits were an important element.
Forest bathing means connecting with nature and taking in the forest through our senses. It is a fantastic way to avail of “quiet” time spent amongst the trees for health and wellbeing purposes. The concept was developed in the 1980’s in Japan as a way to combat the increasing pressure and stress of modern life. The practice, termed shinrin-yoku, has now spread worldwide, with many studies confirming its many health benefits. These benefits arise from the relaxing setting of the forest environment as well as the physiological benefit of increased level of oxygen and of the many fragrances released in the air by trees and plants. Studies of the human health effects of certain essential oils released by trees found a measurable “boost” to the immune system. Conifers such as pine, spruce, and cedar are the largest producers of beneficial essential oils (called “phytoncides”) and offer significant health benefits. Research has also shown the other physiological benefits of forest bathing to include blood pressure reduction, lower cortisol level and improvement in concentration and memory.
Return on investment
Individual forest owners are lucky to have such a wonderful resource, in the majority of cases literally on their doorstep. Many associate forests only with valuable timber production. With good planning, landowners will be able to integrate forest recreation and biodiversity with timber production as part of their overall vibrant farming enterprise. For most forest owners, a very valuable “return” is to come back from their forest relaxed, refreshed and reinvigorated. Why not enhance the connections and begin your shinrin-yoku in you forest tomorrow? Better still, encourage the family to enjoy the forest with you.
Liam O’Connor outside his Forest recreational “hut“. This is part of a recreational walk facility that Liam has developed, for the wellbeing of his family, as part of a 24 ha mixed farm forest (in the background). The forest is actively managed for timber production and complements well his cattle enterprise.