Magazine article American Forests

Trees and Your Health

Magazine article American Forests

Trees and Your Health

Article excerpt

All of us have experienced the helaing power of trees. As I write its, Washington, DC, is having its first warm days of spring. The trees are budding out a little more each day. To me, and even to those who don't take conscious note of such changes, they undoubtedly help chase away winter blues.

By the time you read this article, those budding leaves will be getting ready to change color and most of you will Ge remembering summer vacations in the outdoors-vacations that helped to renew and refresh. It is no secret why people are drawn to the outdoors for recreation. Time spent in the outdoors literally re-creates tired minds and bodies. Earlier generations lived and worked closer to nature than we do, but the innate bond we have with nature remains. With about three-quarters of the U. S. population now living in urban areas, it is no wonder that we strive to bring a bit of nature to our everyday lives in the cities and suburbs.

If you are one of the millions who spend too many hours commuting in rush-hour traffic, confined to a cubicle so isolated from nature that you are oblivious even of weather changes, and/or with your eyes fixed daily on a humming computer screen, this article is for you. It contains some relevant findings not only about the healing powers of trees but about the possible adverse health effects of living and working in a society that has become increasingly inanimate. These studies have special ramifications for urban planners and offer important findings in support of urban forestry. What our bodies have been telling us all along-that plants and other natural elements have a calming, recuperative effect on our health-is now being documented by as diverse a group of researchers as psychologists, urban foresters, even a geographer. Roger Ulrich, now Associate Dean for Research at Texas A&M University, was with the Department of Geography at the University of Delaware when he first started researching how trees-and the lack of trees-might affect our well-being. The study that has perhaps gone the farthest to quantify health values of trees was one that focused on recovery rates of patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981. All 46 patients in the study group had had the same type of surgery (removal of gall bladder). Half were assigned to rooms with windows facing a brick wall while the other 23 patients viewed a small stand of deciduous trees out their windows. All the patients, having just undergone surgery, were experiencing a fair amount of stress and were, by the nature of their confinement, limited to receiving little additional stimuli that would affect their recovery rates.

Ulrich found that the tree-view patients spent 8.5 percent fewer post-operative days in the hospital and required fewer costly injections of potent analgesics than patients who viewed the brick wall following surgery. Even a one percent decline in inpatient days translates to a savings of several hundred million dollars in hospital care in this country each year. The ripple effect that such a savings might have on rising health insurance costs should make us all sit up and take notice.

But what about the role of trees in our everyday environments? Can trees relieve ordinary stresses that we encounter where we live and work? The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that Americans spend at least $100 million annually on headache remedies. Headaches and other muscle tension are common physical symptoms of stress. In recent years, Americans have filed a record number of stress-related workers' compensation claims. Some experts put the overall cost of stress on the job -including absenteeism, drops in productivity, and medical costs-at $150 billion a year.

The first studies of how trees might relieve everyday stress did not measure medical responses as were assessed in the hospital study, but depended instead on verbal responses and preference ratings. …

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