photo by D. Nguyen.
Healthy Places, Healthy People
If it wasn’t apparent before, the COVID-19 pandemic drove it home. Access to nature is imperative for our physical, mental, and social health.
While empirical evidence has been stacking up in recent decades as study after study returns data showing how nature is linked to our well-being, the demand upon public parks, as people seek exercise, respite, and inspiration outdoors, outnumbers parks accessible to our communities.
Read on to learn more about:
🌲 Environmental health and how protecting nature supports our physical well-being
❤️ Physical health and how exercising in nature has specific benefits on our immune systems and stress levels
🧠 Mental health and how being in nature settles our minds and boosts creativity
🤝 Social health and how connecting with our community in nature improves our relationships with each other
🔑 Access and health and how overcoming barriers to visiting or having nature nearby can improve conditions for vulnerable communities
Protecting and improving our environment plays a major role in our health—affecting the water we drink, food we eat, and the air that we breathe. By protecting the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountains we are preserving an interconnected ecosystem that helps to restore a healthy environment including fresher air and cleaner water. In fact, coast redwood trees can clean more carbon from the air and store it longer than any other tree. Coast redwood trees also play an important role in the water cycle helping to capture water from rain, and even fog, and trickle it down to streams where their roots help to trap sediment and improve water quality.
Redwood forests are one of our greatest champions against climate change and maintaining a human-friendly climate. Protecting and stewarding the remaining redwood forests so they can both help combat climate change and be resilient to it is vital to our environmental health. But you may be surprised to learn that environmental factors like the cleaner air and water that trees can provide are just the surface level of our understanding of nature’s benefits to our physical health.
photo by Ian Bornarth.
While recreational opportunities like hiking, bird-watching, mountain biking, fungi-finding, rock climbing, and horseback riding abound when you visit the Santa Cruz mountains, the link between nature and physical health goes much deeper. Studies have shown that in addition to the fresher air, cleaner water, and space for exercise that healthy ecosystems can provide, just spending time in nature can decrease stress and increase indicators of health. After spending time outdoors participants in studies have shown lower adrenaline, cortisol, and blood pressure while virus and cancer fighting cells increased1.
Inspired by the results in Japan, where the idea of “forest bathing” originated in the 80’s and time outdoors is standard preventative medicine, numerous studies around the world2 have been delving in to better understand the specific benefits of nature and why they occur. Some preliminary studies have found that phytoncides, organic compounds released by trees, help to reduce stress hormones, improve sleep3 and your immune system4, and enhance white blood cells that help fight cancer.
Conifers have many phytoncides5 and coast redwood trees are not only conifers but the tallest trees on earth—giving them hundreds of feet of phytoncide production6. In fact, the very thing that keeps coast redwood trees so healthy and resilient is exactly what researchers think might help keep us healthier and more resilient too. Phytoncides like terpenes allow coast redwoods to be resistant to rot, bugs, and fire as well as condense fog and cool themselves when they are released into the air—right where you can breathe them in and enjoy their benefits too. A quick visit to a redwood forest could help lower blood pressure and improve your sense of well being7.
When you breathe in fresh forest air, you’re breathing in more than just a nice scent—you’re breathing in a little boost for your mental health too. That smell when you are in the woods contains organic compounds, called phytoncides, trees release into the air which, in addition to physical health benefits, have been found to lower stress and anxiety8 which can have a big impact on our mental health9. But that's just the start of what scientists are discovering about how our mental wellness is influenced by nature10.
Spending time outdoors has been linked with reductions in depression11, major depressive disorder12, and schizophrenia13, and increases in self-esteem, focus, memory, and creativity14—which photographer Robert Buelteman discusses in Under the Redwoods: Redwoods as an Idea.
Among the theories being explored to uncover how time in nature can make such impacts on our health is the theory of “awe”15– the feeling that comes over you when you see something mind blowing that really makes you stop and take it in – which nature is remarkable at producing in us. It may come as no surprise that one such researcher experienced that sense of awe when encountering coast redwoods here in the San Francisco Bay Area. After all, in addition to the high amounts of phytoncides redwoods release into the air, they are the tallest trees on earth and can live for thousands of years making them incredibly awe-inducing.
Whether seeking awe, a chance to relieve stress, or just a change of scenery, more people than ever have been drawn to outdoor spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. One study conducted in the midst of the pandemic found that those with greenery and park access in their neighborhoods had better mental wellbeing through the extreme circumstances16. While it’s not shocking that many people seek the outdoors after spending more time than usual indoors, some of the discoveries as to how the impacts of spending that time in nature extend beyond ourselves may be more unexpected.
A healthy environment can help people be healthier inside and out with cleaner water, fresher air, room to exercise, and improved mental well being, but spending time in nature could also improve our social health. Getting outdoors helps us connect with places and people in our community. Public green spaces are where children can make friends across cultures setting the stage for social inclusion17. Even as adults, nature is the setting for positive social interactions18 and volunteering in nature can improve social connectedness19 and help those who feel isolated by mental health, loss of a loved one, unemployment, or trouble with the law to reconnect with society20. In fact, spending time in nature has been shown to improve empathy21, helpfulness22, and cooperation23, and reduce anger24 and crime25.
You can explore volunteer opportunities to connect with nature and people while helping to improve the health of redwood forests, your community, and yourself.
Nature may provide simple solutions for improving our environmental, physical, mental, and social health. But not everyone feels welcome in nature or has equitable access to it and the benefits it can provide.
- Connect with nature and others through Volunteer Opportunities.
Several studies have found that trees have become luxuries as our cities have grown with fewer occurrences of trees and greenness in lower income areas 29. Fewer green spaces at home make access to forested parks all the more crucial for physical and mental health but a recent study found that children from lower income families spent less time outdoors during the pandemic 30.
While visiting the redwoods in person provides the best combination of health boosting effects 31, if you aren’t able to get to the redwoods, some studies suggest that simply seeing a picture of nature can benefit us and new studies are delving into the effectiveness of seeing nature through virtual reality 32. You can visit the virtual redwoods for a mood boost. For many, barriers to park access include transportation, entrance fees, mobility needs, and under-representation, all of which can leave would-be-park-goers feeling daunted and unwelcome.
We believe in safe, welcoming, and inclusive access to nature for all. As we continue preserving the remaining redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, we will build on our legacy of improving access for all including reimagining Big Basin Redwoods State Park and learning from partners like Amah Mutsun Land Trust to connect with and manage the land in new ways. Because a healthy environment helps to support healthy people and healthy communities. And nothing has more potential to positively impact our environment and health than coast redwood forests which can reduce more carbon dioxide than any other tree, clean our water, release health boosting phytoncides, and induce awe with their massive heights and lifespans.
- If you can’t get to the forest, we’ll bring the forest to you. Visit the Virtual Redwoods for a mood boost.
Interested in digging a little deeper into the science behind how redwoods benefit our environmental, physical, mental, and social health? Here are some sources with more information indicated in the facts above:
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Woo, Junsung, and C Justin Lee. “Sleep-enhancing Effects of Phytoncide Via Behavioral, Electrophysiological, and Molecular Modeling Approaches.” Experimental Neurobiology, vol. 29, 30 Apr. 2020, pp. 120-129, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7237266/.
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