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Walk in the woods for wellness: Health benefits of forests

Osceola National Forest, road with tall, skinny trees lining each side
Osceola National Forest, Florida. USDA Forest Service by Susan Blake.

FLORIDA – Even though the National Forests in Florida are close to some of the largest metro areas in the state —Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville— they still provide opportunities for well-rounded wellness experiences away from the hustle and bustle of hectic urban life.

A walk in the woods gazing at trees, flowers and, if you’re lucky, wildlife, can leave you feeling restored and rejuvenated. Although we inherently feel that spending time in nature is good for us, we may not realize just how good it can be for our health. Forests not only play a major role in cleaning our air and water, but also provide beneficial changes to the minds and bodies of those who spend time among the trees.

Exposure to forests strengthens our immune system, reduces blood pressure, increases energy, boosts our mood and helps us regain and maintain our focus in ways that treeless environments just don’t.
These benefits don’t necessarily come from intense physical activities many people do in the forest such as hiking or mountain biking. Almost anyone can reap the rewards of a short sojourn to the woods. The Japanese call it "shinrin-yoku" or "forest bathing." Even 20 minutes in a forested space is enough to produce positive changes in the body.

Why is this?

The secrets lie in the plants themselves. For one reason, forests contain a higher concentration of oxygen than urban spaces do. The next and perhaps most surprising reason comes from the chemicals plants produce called phytoncides. These chemicals are natural oils that plants use to defend themselves against unwanted pests such as insects, bacteria or fungi.

Phytoncides improve the human immune system by increasing natural killer cell activity. These cells respond rapidly to virus-infected cells and tumor formation. Studies show that increased natural cell activity can last for more than 30 days after a trip to a forest, suggesting that a trip once a month would enable individuals to maintain a higher level of natural killer cell activity. Other benefits from phytoncides include an increase in anti-cancer proteins; a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones; reduced test scores for anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion; and increased scores for vigor

So, if you live near an evergreen forest – a forest that contains trees such as pine, cedar, spruce or fir – you live near some of the best phytoncide producers around.

If you’re feeling encouraged to get outdoors after reading this article, Florida’s National Forests have plenty of pine trees and green space to spare for a day of forest therapy. So come to Trout Pond for a picnic, slowly stroll along the Fanny Bay boardwalk or spend a full day fishing at Fore Lake. Take in the sights, sounds and smells that surround you. Stay a while under the shade of a large oak tree or sit and soak up the sun.

Take a few deep breaths, and feel the stress surrounding you dissipate.