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Even a short walk in the woods is good for you, researchers claim

Just a daily 20-minute trip into the wild can boost mental and physical health, and make children less susceptible to allergies, according to a new report by a team of Finnish forestry researchers.

Luminen metsämaisema
Cheaper than membership at the gym Image: Pertti Huotari / Yle

Anyone who's resolved to shed kilos and boost their wellbeing this year would do well to forget expensive gym membership and make regular trips into the forest instead, according to a new report by a group of Finnish forestry researchers.

The Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla), now part of the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), claims in a new study that even 20 minutes a day spent in nature can lower blood pressure and raise feelings of vitality.

“Metla recommends spending at least five hours among nature per month, which has a significant impact on well-being,” says Kati Vähäsarja, project director at the state forest management agency Metsähallitus and health sciences researcher at the University of Jyväskylä.

In the past five years, studies into the effects of time spent amid nature have accelerated in several countries.

Anti-allergy benefits

“A summary of these findings has just been published in England. We are constantly getting more confirmation, for instance, that playing in the woods makes children less susceptible to allergies,” says Vähäsarja.

“There is also research on the regenerative effects of forests on the mind. This is being studied through surveys and devices that measure how the brain reacts to stress stimuli in n the forest and in urban settings,” she notes. “It’s also been shown that even seeing woodlands from a window can improve one’s mood. And even five minutes in the forest strengthens our coping ability.”

“In Japan, there is research into the essential oils secreted by trees, which are thought to have beneficial attributes. The aromas, relaxing sounds, landscapes and flavours of the forest all reduce stress,” she asserts.

Weight drops off

People who do not find traditional exercise places to be sufficiently motivational can gain the impetus for physical activity in the wilds, the researchers said.

“For individuals who have not exercised for many years, the forest is a place with a low threshold,” says Vähäsarja. She has been running 'Moved by Nature,’ a two-year Metsähallitus project promoting exercise in nature. Based in the eastern regions of North Savo and North Karelia, it wraps up at the end of January.

Those taking part have included obese men who were concerned about weight gain but not interested in exercise. They developed a group on the forest as motivation for weight control and exercise. Some of them said that walking around in the wilds did not even seem like exercise.

“They gained the best health benefits when they exercised without noticing it. As a result the 16 men in the group have lost a total of 60 kilos,” says Vähäsarja.

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