Forests play a crucial role in supporting our mental and physical health, yet this is often overlooked within health strategies, education programmes, and in everyday human lifestyles. In the 2017 Spring Issue of REVOLVE Magazine, Chantal van Ham and Helen Klimmek from the IUCN European Regional Office explore the numerous benefits and services provided by forests, and the need to recognise these within health strategies and programmes.
The European Union currently faces a number of health-care challenges. These include a changing demographic, limited financial resources, growing health inequalities between and within Member States, and a growing prevalence of chronic diseases. Fundamental to developing an effective European health-care system is the recognition that the presence of ecosystems such as forests can play a crucial role in helping us lead happier and healthier lives. IUCN showcases the health benefits of connecting people to forests in their article for REVOLVE Magazine.
Studies show that spending time in green spaces, particularly natural areas such as forests, plays an important part in child and adolescent development, as well as in the prevention and treatment of health problems such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity, anxiety and depression. These benefits have been recognised in public health campaigns and initiatives around the world. As part of the Unites States National Park Service’s ‘Healthy Parks Healthy People’ programme, doctors prescribe time in nature to help treat conditions such as diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure. In Japan, the restorative benefits of forests were formally recognised in 1982 when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries advocated Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) as a form of stress management and relaxation. The potential of natural areas such as forests to provide an escape from our increasingly stressful, noisy, and polluted surroundings is also being acknowledged in the UK and Sweden, where forest and park areas near health care facilities are being used to support rehabilitation and recuperation.
Despite these positive examples and ample evidence demonstrating the links between human health and outdoor activity, children and adults are in fact spending more and more time indoors, which has contributed to the prevalence of various physical and mental health problems. Reconnecting people with nature by showcasing the wonder and beauty of the natural world as well as the many essential services and benefits entailed, can play an important role in encouraging more active and healthy lifestyles and in tackling many of the health-care challenges facing society today. Initiatives such as IUCN's #NatureForAll campaign aim to do just that by inspiring a new generation of thinkers and doers across all sectors of society to connect with nature and take action to support its conservation. The more people experience, connect with, and share their love of nature, the more support there will be for its conservation. This, in turn, will have a positive impact on human health by ensuring that we continue to benefit from the vast array of valuable goods and services provided by nature, such as clean air, green spaces, and stress-free environments, which are so essential to our health and well-being.
There is a lot to gain from bringing the nature conservation and health sectors closer together and jointly developing solutions for health-related challenges. The EU has an important role to play in supporting this process and in ensuring that policies and financial mechanisms take into account the links between health, societal, and environmental concerns. Supporting dialogues between policymakers, scientists, and communities are essential to developing more holistic approaches to human health-care and environmental protection. By fostering these types of dialogues through initiatives such as the Parks for the Planet Forum, highlighting the benefits of nature, and sharing conservation success stories from around the world, IUCN is committed to re-establishing the connection between humans and nature and supporting the achievement of a healthier and happier Europe for all.
Download the full article “Restoring the connection between forests and human health” from the tab on the right or read the full REVOLVE Magazine spring issue here.