Forests have considerable impacts on the health of human communities around the world. From health benefits to carbon sequestration, forests are critical for the wellbeing of human populations. However, the health of forests worldwide is declining, which is worsened by the fact that people's lives are increasingly disconnected from nature.
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Importance of the forests and the natural environment in daily life
Forests provide clean air, mitigate environmental change, conserve biodiversity, and are critical for the provision of fresh water. For humans, forests have calming effects on the mind and body and are known to improve respiratory health, reduce stress levels, and boost immune systems. The health of forest ecosystems is, therefore, closely associated with the health of human populations both for the environment as well as for people directly.
The mental and physical benefits of spending time in forests have been closely examined over the last decades. This is particularly due to the expansion of cities and the movement of populations away from densely forested inland regions to coastlines. However, scientific findings are unequivocal, and forests are highly beneficial for human wellbeing.
In a 2020 study by Antonelli et al. (2020), researchers demonstrated that individuals could benefit even from inhaling forest-volatile organic compounds like limonene and pinene. Specifically, findings showed elevated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the airways when inhaling forest-derived compounds. Such effects have useful implications for individual wellbeing, public health, and landscape design, as expanding forested areas may be highly beneficial for human health.
As our understanding of the effects of forests improves, researchers can narrow down the most important factors contributing to human health. In a 2022 study, Gilhen-Baker et al. found that not all forests benefit humans equally. A review of existing scientific literature found that old forests disproportionately benefit humans compared to younger ones.
Specifically, the authors of the review found that forests made of old trees are particularly important as they provide more nutrients, produce more phytochemicals, and cycle more nutrients than younger counterparts. Moreover, old trees also appear to play a greater role in aesthetic, symbolic, religious, and historical elements of human culture. However, the health of old-growth trees is declining sparsely as human activities threaten to eliminate the livelihood of old-growth forests in the world.
How modern life can jeopardize our relationship with the natural environment
Rapid urbanization and industrialization have drastically reduced the number of trees in the past few decades. This has resulted in a loss of biodiversity and serious environmental consequences such as global warming, air pollution, soil erosion, and natural disasters. Deforestation also directly impacts humans, a major cause of floods and landslides.
The lack of forests has significant implications for human health. This is most observable in cities, as urbanization is rapidly changing how we interact with nature. Specifically, lack of access to nature can negatively impact human physical and mental wellbeing, exacerbated by stress.
This was particularly observable during the COVID-19 pandemic, as populations worldwide were restricted in terms of movement and could not access nature. Lee et al. (2022) conducted a survey during the pandemic and found that around the world, the desire of people to experience the natural environment was the primary response to relieving stress. Ultimately, the survey found that regardless of region, people wanted to reconnect with nature the most during the pandemic.
In the coming decades, the rise of global temperatures is expected to further worsen the loss of biodiversity as well as increase the occurrence of droughts and extreme weather events. Forests are becoming increasingly important for natural ecosystems, communities, and the broader human population. From stress relief to better air quality, the maintenance of forests and an improved relationship with nature will be critical for human wellbeing in the future.
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Forests and humans in an era of global change and human activity
In recent years, solutions have been developed to ensure that forests are healthy and present in human lives. Efforts to replant forests have increased rapidly, with more trees across continental Europe now compared to 20 years ago. Similar trends have been seen in many South Asian countries as well, a region marked by the fastest rate of urbanization, demonstrating the growing regional awareness for greener spaces and healthier forests.
Outdoor recreational activities are also on the rise, as a 2022 study by Zwart et al. found that activities, particularly in forested areas, enhanced physical and psychological health outcomes. The authors highlight how effective forested and other natural areas are to enhance the health benefits of activities. Additionally, the authors advocate that nature-based recreational activities can be used as interventions for those in need of mental, physical, or emotional support.
Other solutions to reconnect with nature have also focused on ecological tourism, which provides visitors a chance to explore areas or observe wildlife while providing financial income for local communities and contributing towards the preservation of sites. Ecotourism has proved that natural spaces and the wildlife they encompass can be as financially beneficial as using the same areas for fishing, poaching, hunting, or agricultural land. As a result, ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular around the world.
Finally, the use of urban forests may be able to provide urbanized areas with green areas and their associated benefits even within cities. The benefits of urban forests described in scientific literature were reviewed by Wolf et al. (2020), who found that reducing harm (including decreased air pollution, ultraviolet radiation, heat exposure, and pollen) was the most popular benefit of urban forests. Further benefits also included the restoration of capacities (attention restoration, mental health, stress reduction, and clinical outcomes) as well as building capacities (birth outcomes, active living, and weight status).
Therefore, urban forests may be an effective strategy for rebuilding the human connection to forests, especially when combined with outdoor activities and improved awareness of nature's value. As a result, many rapidly expanding cities are integrating natural elements, with places such as Singapore placing a high value on the presence of trees and parks within neighborhoods and apartment complexes. However, cities that have already used the most available space for infrastructure may find it challenging to reintegrate the lost elements of nature.
- Antonelli, M., Donelli, D., Barbieri, G., Valussi, M., Maggini, V., & Firenzuoli, F. (2020). Forest Volatile Organic Compounds and Their Effects on Human Health: A State-of-the-Art Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(18), 6506. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17186506
- Gilhen-Baker, M., Roviello, V., Beresford-Kroeger, D., & Roviello, G. N. (2022). Old growth forests and large old trees as critical organisms connecting ecosystems and human health. A review. Environmental Chemistry Letters, 20(2), 1529–1538. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10311-021-01372-y
- Lee, J. H., Cheng, M., Syamsi, M. N., Lee, K. H., Aung, T. R., & Burns, R. C. (2022). Accelerating the Nature Deficit or Enhancing the Nature-Based Human Health during the Pandemic Era: An International Study in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Myanmar, following the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Forests, 13(1), 57. https://doi.org/10.3390/f13010057
- Wolf, K. L., Lam, S. T., McKeen, J. K., Richardson, G. R., Van Den Bosch, M., & Bardekjian, A. C. (2020). Urban Trees and Human Health: A Scoping Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(12), 4371. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17124371
- Zwart, R., & Ewert, A. (2022). Human Health and Outdoor Adventure Recreation: Perceived Health Outcomes. Forests, 13(6), 869. https://doi.org/10.3390/f13060869