Recreational Forest: Not Only Good For The Climate

Forest stands make an important contribution to the future. They must be preserved at all costs. This is emphasized on “Day of the Forest” on March 21. As early as 1971, the day was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a reaction to the global destruction of forests.

Forests affected by ozone pollution and acid rain need protection from humans. People, in turn, need the forest for their health. The health effects of walks in the forest are being researched by Joachim Rathmann, a geographer at the University of Würzburg, since May 2022 together with colleagues from Augsburg.

If you have to work eight hours a day sitting down, you need to feel good; a physical counterbalance. More and more people are going to the gym for this reason. But the forest is also still valued as a recreational area. According to Joachim Rathmann, there’s a new trend of “bathing” in the forest: “You immerse yourself in the forest atmosphere and perceive the surroundings with all your senses.”

It is clear that, especially when we live in cities, we no longer live in touch with nature. Forest bathing expresses the longing for a life with more connection with nature. In part, says Joachim Rathmann, forest bathing has an esoteric quality: “You track down forest spirits, sense earth forces or combine forest bathing with shamanism.” What’s good about the new trend? What should be criticized? And what about a regular walk in the forest? These are the questions the geographer is addressing at the moment.

Joachim Rathmann researches the effect of the forest on people.

Utilize as much wood as possible

Those who say with conviction that it is healthy to go for a walk in the forest may be right. “But we need measurement results in order to be able to provide decision-makers with arguments in favor of the importance of the forest as a recreational area,” explains Joachim Rathmann. This is important because the forest is still primarily of economic importance: forest owners try to extract as many cubic meters of wood as possible and sell it lucratively. Nevertheless, initial study results confirm that walks in the forest are very good at reducing stress.

It could therefore be concluded that they can reduce medical costs. While a university professor of history works with source material to gain new insights, the Würzburg private lecturer conducts experimental field research together with his Augsburg colleagues. The team recruited volunteers who, on different days, walked for 45 minutes through the city of Augsburg, the Augsburg city park and two routes through the city forest. Before and after, among other things, the heart rate and, via saliva, the stress hormone cortisol were measured. So far, a decrease in heart rate due to walks in the forest compared to visiting the city and a slight decrease in cortisol have been found. 

However, since it is not a laboratory test, the effects can vary from passage to passage. The  effects may depend on the weather and individual factors also come into play.

Spiritual reference

As we all know, you can’t lump everyone together. Everyone experiences the forest differently based on their personality. According to Joachim Rathmann, people with a strong spiritual connection usually have a more intense relationship with the forest than those without a spiritual inclination. People who are involved in nature in their free time also go to the forest differently than citizens with little interest in nature.

Forest bathing, to come back to this briefly, seems spontaneously appealing, but if you think about it properly, there is actually no need to go into the forest in an “organized” way. Of course, according to Joachim Rathmann, forest bathing particularly delights those people who haven’t been intensively in nature for a long time. To which many people said: “There is an alienation from nature.” Nevertheless, the geographer is personally skeptical about forest bathing. It’s enough, he says, to go into the forest for absolutely no purpose. Without a coach. Without instructions. Walks in the forest can help if you have not yet gained the necessary distance from a difficult or bad event. Especially then is it important to experience the forest completely without any purpose – without a group and without an app that dictates how many steps you have to complete. According to Joachim Rathmann, it is already clear now, i.e. before the research project is completed: exercise in the forest has a greater health effect than exercise indoors. Like in the gym, for example.

More and more people are standing up for forests. This is also important because forests are essential for the climate and human health.

Park or forest?

Of course you can also enjoy relaxing experiences in the city area. Meeting friends in the city, talking shop with a friend in a café about cooking recipes or going for a walk in the park is fun and also reduces stress. On the other hand, while you are surrounded by trees and birdsong in the forest, you can hardly avoid the traffic noise in the city. The inclusion of such details and contexts makes the research project complex and demanding. It’s not so easy to answer a seemingly banal question like whether it’s healthy to go for a walk in the forest. In the further course of the research project, it will be investigated in more detail whether different types of forest have different health effects. In general, or again related to the different individuals. In other words: Does coniferous forest possibly have a fundamentally or individually different effect than deciduous forest? Or as a mixed forest? The interdisciplinary project is funded by the German Research Foundation. It is scheduled to run until April 2025. 365,000 euros are available over the three years of the project.

Christ, P. (2024). Erholungsraum Wald: Nicht nur gut fürs Klima. BlattGrün, (März / April 2024), page 12.

Translated to English with the help of DeepL and Google Translate.