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Health and wellbeing in Britain’s woodlands

Topics: Human Wellbeing | Comments

Britain’s Forest Research group has spent the last decade developing programs to get people out of their homes and into the woods.

Forest Research (FR) is the research agency of the Forestry Commission in Britain. The Forestry Commission became interested in the health benefits people can gain from woodlands in the early 2000s. It asked FR’s Social and Economic Research Group (SERG) to organise seminars in England, Scotland and Wales in 2003 to bring together health, environmental and forestry professionals to debate issues of health and forests in terms of policy, practice, research and promotion.

One of the outcomes of the seminars was a series of interventions and activities that the Forestry Commission set up, often in partnership, to encourage people into urban and rural woodlands for health benefit. These included:

  • Using forestry grants to set up health projects;
  • Using public forests to set up organised walking, cycling, and tai chi activities;
  • Working in partnership with health bodies to link in with doctor exercise referral schemes and mental health services;
  • Improving existing infrastructure, including paths for walking and cycling;
  • Promoting the health benefits of woods through the ‘Active Woods’ media campaign.

Standout projects

Dr Liz O’Brien is the deputy head of SERG. She highlights two of the Forestry Commission projects as being particularly successful: Active England and the Chopwell Wood Health Project.

Active England aimed to encourage under-represented groups to become physically active, through five projects run in woodlands in England over three years from 2005/6. The projects included improvements to infrastructure in the woods; outreach work to target specific groups; and the running of organised events like health walks and cycle rides.

‘A colleague and I evaluated the five projects and found there were significant increases in site visits, people started staying longer and undertaking more of activities such as cycling, use of play areas and mountain biking,’ Dr O’Brien says. ‘Focus group work identified that people who participated in the projects enjoyed the socialising, contact with nature, mental and physical health improvements and gaining a sense of achievement and self-improvement.’

The Chopwell Wood Health Project ran for 18 months from 2004, in a wood in north east England. The project, a partnership between FC and two health bodies, involved working with local doctors in an exercise referral scheme to include activities in Chopwell Wood (eg cycling, tai chi, health walks) as a referral option; and working with four local primary schools and hosting four visits each by four local schools.

‘The children were brought to the wood to undertake physical activity and learn about stress reduction techniques and healthy eating habits,’ Dr O’Brien says. ‘I got involved in the evaluation of the project. We found that children thought of the wood as a healthy place after their four visits. The number of children visiting the wood with their parents rose after the four visits. Ninety-nine per cent of those visiting the wood felt it had a positive impact on their health and well-being. Sixty per cent thought visiting had an impact on health through undertaking physical activity and 40 per cent felt it had an impact on the mental and physical health.’

Project evaluation

SERG has been involved in evaluating and carrying out research on its projects over the past few years. This has included evaluating projects that have tried to increase physical activity and well-being, evaluating the impacts of Forest School on young children, exploring the motivations and benefits of environmental volunteering and reviewing the role of urban forestry and urban health inequalities. The group has also been part of the Outdoors and Health Network which brought together a range of academics to carry out interdisciplinary work.

While these evaluations have great value, Dr O’Brien says it is unfortunate that they are not carried on beyond the length of the project, usually due to lack of funding. ‘Project leaders employed with project money often have to leave at the end of the projects and it is difficult to obtain new funding to carry on existing activities, instead organisations have to develop a whole new project with different target groups,’ she says.

Changing attitudes

However, even without ongoing evaluation Dr O’Brien says it’s clear the projects are making their mark, and awareness is growing in Britain about the links between nature and health and wellbeing.

‘Health walks are being run right across the Britain. Forest School, in which children spend time out of school in woods learning, is also spreading across Britain and involves children being physically active,’ she says.

‘Strategies and documents produced by the Department of Health are starting to mention the importance of nature for health more often. For example a new document called Flourishing People, Connected Communities outlines five daily habits for well-being, one of which is: engage with nature by walking in a park, growing a plant or stroking an animal.’


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