Health benefits

Trees Support Mental Health During COVID-19

By Patricia Lindquist, DNR Urban Forestry Communications Specialist based in Madison, patricia.lindquist@wisconsin.gov or 608-843-6248 

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a serious toll on our mental health. Many of us are feeling lonely and isolated due to social distancing. Some of us have lost our jobs, some have lost access to schooling and some have lost beloved friends and family members.

Stress, anxiety and depression are on the rise. The numbers are truly staggering. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, from January to June 2019, 11% of adults reported these symptoms. In recent months, these figures have more than tripled. The weekly average for May 2020 was 34.5%; the weekly average for June was 36.5%; and the weekly average for July was 40.1%. In addition, a recent study reported that 13.3% of adults have begun or increased their use of substances to cope with the stress of COVID-19, and 10.7% of adults have thought of suicide in the last 30 days.

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Urban Forests Make Safer Streets

By Jane Raffaldi, New York Department of Environmental Conservation

As leaves change this time of year, it’s obvious that urban trees make our communities more beautiful, but did you know they also make our neighborhood streets safer? Streets lined with trees tend to encourage slower driving and statistically have less accidents than those without. And it’s not just speeds that are lowered by their presence – they also contribute to lower stress levels in drivers, leading to less road rage.

How does a simple stretch of trees have such a magical impact? According to the Federal Highway Administration, the presence of tree canopy along a street provides a narrowing speed control measure by creating a “psycho-perceptive sense of enclosure” that discourages speeding.

When drivers feel like they’re in a smaller, closed space – like a tunnel or a canopied street – they drive slower than when driving through open areas. Additionally, the presence of greenery naturally calms us whether we are consciously looking at it or not.

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Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives website

The newly launched Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives website (https://healthytreeshealthylives.org/) is an excellent source of information on the health benefits of trees. The website was developed by the Southern Group of State Foresters Urban and Community Forestry Committee and funded through a Landscape Scale Restoration grant.

The Health Benefits section of the website divides 14 benefits into 4 categories: physical (skin, heart, lungs, pregnancies/newborns, comfort/heat reduction, nutrition, fitness), mental (peace of mind, vitality, brain), healing (fighting power, healing, health), and financial (healthcare savings). Each benefit is described in a sentence or two, and links to published research papers on each benefit are included.

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Urban forests support mental health

As the hilarious, award-winning Nature RX video series points out, spending time in nature is a potent “drug” for alleviating the day-to-day stress we all face. It is also a powerful way to combat anxiety, depression, and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The average American is sorely in need of the stress-relieving boost provided by trees. Eighty percent of American adults are afflicted by stress; forty million are affected by anxiety disorders, and nearly sixteen million experience major depression each year.

In recent years, the medical community has been increasingly recognizing the importance of trees to mental health. A growing number of scientists have been studying and documenting the health benefits of trees. For example, one study found that a 25% increase in neighborhood tree canopy was associated with a 1-point decrease on a 5-point scale for depression, anxiety and stress. Another study analyzed MRI scans of the brains of urban residents who live close to a forest. These residents were found to have an amygdala structure that is associated with a greater ability to cope with stress. (Source)

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Trees for clean air

By Robert Allard, Urban and Community Forestry Coordinator, Rhode Island DEM

This year, as families all over the country spend more time at home, we have been given the opportunity to appreciate the fresh air that we can enjoy on our own back porches and front stoops more than ever.  Trees are a significant factor contributing to the quality of the air we breathe. Recent research shows that even relatively small trees bring benefits to their neighborhoods. Just a single tree has the potential to filter up to one third of fine particulates such as dust, dirt, soot, and smoke within 300 yards, and can reduce particulate matter inside homes by as much as 60%.

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First comprehensive review of the health impacts of urban trees published

Thanks to the efforts of researchers over the past few decades, we have a solid understanding of the ecological benefits of urban forests, such as reduced greenhouse gases, decreased stormwater runoff, and lessening of the urban heat island effect. In contrast, knowledge of the human health benefits of urban forests is still developing. Existing reviews of health benefits have focused more broadly on nature, green space, and greenness rather than concentrating specifically on urban trees.

To address this gap, a team of scientists reviewed the existing quantitative research on the relationships between urban trees and human health. Their findings were published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in the article Urban Trees and Human Health: A Scoping Review.  

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Trees bring good news for summer!

By Kim Ballard, Outreach Coordinator, Project Canopy, Maine Forest Service

Credit: Kim Ballard

2020 has been quite the year already – from extreme weather to the pandemic to civil unrest, we could all use a break from stress and anxiety. As the days are now at their longest, and lots of sun is in the forecast, it is the PERFECT time to step outside and get some much deserved fresh air and exercise. Parks are open and trees are masters at lowering your heart rate, your blood pressure and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in your bloodstream. Tree-lined paths are cooler than the asphalt sidewalk, contain less air pollution than shared bike lanes and likely even have less crime than neighborhoods with no tree canopy. And if you are anything like me, a quarantine-enhanced waistline could benefit from some exercise provided by a brisk walk outdoors. Any way you look at it, trees are really good for us. And some good news would be really welcome right now.

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Reflections from my travels in India: the health benefits of trees

By Patricia Lindquist, DNR urban forestry communications specialist, Madison, Patricia.Lindquist@wisconsin.gov, 608-843-6248

“What is it about this place?” I wondered. “Why does this city feel so harsh, so disheartening?”

Two hours earlier I had stepped off a train in Patna, India, and I’d been stuck in a massive traffic jam ever since. Honking cars, motorcycles, buses, bicycles, rickshaws, and livestock hemmed me in, but after nearly two months in India, this was nothing new.

Rup, my husband at the time (we are now divorced) is from Calcutta, and I’d grown to love his hometown. Despite the massive cultural differences and sheer size of the city (population: 14 million), I’d warmed up to the place immediately. Calcutta felt welcoming from the moment I arrived; Patna did not. After only two hours in Patna, my nerves were frazzled, I had a headache, and I just wanted to escape.

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Visit the forest outside your door

By Olivia Witthun, DNR regional urban forestry coordinator, Plymouth, Olivia.Witthun@wisconsin.gov, 414-750-8744

Are you going stir-crazy stuck inside your house or apartment?   Take a visit to the forest outside your door!  Step outside to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the trees and nature around you.  It’s good for your mind, body and soul.  Research shows exposure to nature reduces depression, anxiety and stress!  Plus, we all know physical activity keeps your body healthy and boosts your mood. 

Eighty percent of American adults are afflicted by stress.  Forty million are affected by anxiety disorders, and nearly sixteen million experience major depression each year. If you live in the city, those numbers are even higher. Urban dwellers have a 20% higher risk for developing anxiety disorders, 40% for mood disorders and double for schizophrenia.  Stress has become a constant in people’s everyday lives, and the COVID-19 just adds even more.  The cumulative effects of chronic stress can have serious health consequences over time, including: depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic pain and type 2 diabetes. 

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From asthma to ADHD: statistics on the health benefits of trees

Looking for some hard numbers on how urban trees affect health conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and ADHD?

Click on the links below to read the original research studies:

•     An increase of 888 street trees per square mile is associated with a 29% lower rate of childhood asthma. Children Living in Areas with More Street Trees Have Lower Prevalence of Asthma, 2008.

•     Loss of trees to the emerald ash borer is associated with an additional 15,080 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6113 deaths from lower respiratory disease during the study period (1990- 2007). The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer, 2013.

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