Are Forests Really Good For You?
I was always going to be interested in an episode of Grand Designs (tick) which featured a forest dwelling (tick) in Wales (tick). Three of my favourite things covered right there… It was a beautiful setting and I was quite surprised when Kevin McCloud stated that ‘living in a forest is not very appealing’ citing the damp, dark, enclosed nature of woodland environments. This couldn’t be further from my feelings towards forest living.
I grew up in Nottinghamshire; so entrenched in the identity of the county is woodland that the car registration prefix for the region is ‘F’ for forest, not to mention it being the home of that most famed of forest dwellers himself, Robin Hood (pipe down, Yorkshire folk, he’s a Notts lad). At school we undertook field trips to Sherwood Forest, I remember learning all about the Major Oak and, more obscurely, discovering that cuckoo spit was in actual fact the excretions of froghopper nymphs – who knew?!
These days, forests are where I seek out the best single track mountain bike trails. For me, forests have always meant freedom, relaxation and adventure. The smell of pine and crunch of oak leaves underfoot gives me a feeling of peace and belonging. In fact, Mr. Nice Out and I love the forest that much, we had our portrait session in the bluebell woods behind our house on our wedding day.
Lesley Feist agrees. In her song, Mushaboom, she paints a picture of her dream dwelling “Tucked in the woods and out of sight,” a blueprint which has become a bit of a holy grail for us, too. We’re lucky enough to live at the easternmost tip of the National Forest, a new ‘multi purpose forest for the nation’ so there are beautiful wooded areas to explore right here on our doorstep. One of the attractions when we moved to this house was the spinney at the end of the garden, it truly feels like we’re tucked in the woods – here’s the view from my bedroom window:
With all this in mind, I was fascinated to read about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates as ‘forest bathing trip’. So what is shinrin-yoku? A passage from the INFOM (International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine) website explains:
A forest bathing trip is a short, leisurely trip visiting a forest… for relaxation and recreation. Incorporating forest bathing trips into a good lifestyle was first proposed in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan. It has now become a recognized relaxation and/or stress management activity in Japan.
INFOM has undertaken rigorous scientific research which proves there are increased health benefits of physical activity in forested environments compared to the same activity in other settings. This suggests it is the woodland atmosphere itself, not just the walking, jogging or cycling alone which is having a positive health impact.
It’s a high profile area of study in Japan and the US, but is still relatively unexplored here in the UK. This seems at odds with the fact that our landscape is naturally woody…
The British Isles are ideal for tree growth, thanks to their mild winters, plentiful rainfall, fertile soil and hill-sheltered topography. Growth rates for broadleaved (hardwood) trees exceed those of mainland Europe, while conifer (softwood) growth rates are three times those of Sweden and five times those of Finland. In the absence of people, much of Great Britain would be covered with mature oaks.
Source – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forestry
Since WWII, the percentage of forested areas in the UK has been on the increase. There’s still however very little in the way of promotion of shinrin-yoku or the health benefits of being among the trees. In summer 2013, the Forestry Commission launched the ‘More in the Forest’ campaign which seeks to promote woodland holidays. It’s a start, but there’s not a great deal in the marketing material about the health benefits of forests, it is more tourism-focused.
I plan to do my bit to spread the gospel of shinrin-yoku, starting with a Top Secret project I’ve recently become involved with that champions all things woodland. I’ll be revealing much more abut this little venture here on It’s Nice Out in the weeks to come. But in the meantime, I’d love to know whether you agree with Kevin McC, is your perception of forests that they are dark, dank, gloomy places or, like me, do you love being in misty verdant woodland?