How can forests improve human health and wellbeing?

Authors: Clive Davies (EFI), Dominik Mühlberger (Austrian Research Centre for Forests BFW), Barbara Öllerer (Austrian Research Centre for Forests BFW), Rik De Vreese (EFI), Camilla Widmark (EFI Forest Bioeconomy Network) 

Forests have positive proven effects on physical, mental and social health as well as individual well-being. This is important during crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as in the public health context in tackling chronic problems such as obesity, depression, and the related loss of work days. The impacts of forests on human health and well-being can be indirect or direct in nature, but are generally found to lead to both short-term and long-term health improvements.

Forests provide ecosystem services such as highly nutritious food supplements, fuelwood, medicinal plants, clean water, protection against natural hazards, and income, all of which indirectly impact human health and well-being. Another contribution of forests to human health is related to better environmental quality in and around forest areas, including urban green spaces.

In terms of direct effects, a walk in the forest has a positive influence on the nervous system as heart rate and blood pressure decrease. Forest-based health care activities can improve the quality of sleep and encourage regular physical exercise. Being in a forest environment also has a positive effect on the human emotional state. It contributes to recovering from stress-related exhaustion. People feel more balanced and in a better mood after regularly visiting forests. In the case of hospitals and other healthcare facilities, viewing green spaces can measurably reduce patient stress and improve health outcomes.

Natural settings such as parks, woodland and forests, facilitate social contact and foster communication between different user groups. Programmes of health interventions delivered in such spaces have the potential to positively impact particularly vulnerable groups, such as children and youth, people with low income, with disabilities or people with a migratory background. This could support better social integration. Access to forests, the quality of their management for public enjoyment and proximity to large populations are key factors in maximizing their value for health and well-being. Forests, along with other green spaces need to be viewed as a key component of a green infrastructure benefiting public health.

Lock-down phases in the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed forests to be a critical infrastructure for human health and well-being in times of restricted freedom of movement and assembly. Visitor numbers in urban green spaces and forests around urban agglomerations have increased and new user groups have started to visit forests.

The impact of wood used as a building material on human health and wellbeing remains a subject for research. There are indications that the stress levels of people living in wooden buildings are generally lower, and that wooden buildings create more healthy interior climates through summer and winter. Wood used in interior design (furniture, flooring, cladding) contributes to self-perceived wellness.

The role of forests for human health and well-being need more research on the many benefits, the dose-effect relations and for improving forestbased care activities. For this, crosssectoral cooperation with public health professionals, urban developers, and other sectors is encouraged. Additionally, the growing interest in this field represents an opportunity for businesses with innovative approaches towards forest-based health interventions and green care activities to emerge.