Foreset Therapeutic Benefits

Photos: Oliver Lowenstein, from an early summertime forest walk in New Hampshire, USA.

Many have experienced the restorative powers forests can bestow. Increasingly the health benefits are being backed up by scientific studies and research, including at Northern Sweden’s Umeå University’s Nordic Nature Health Hub, a web-portal covering many aspects of this burgeoning scene. Here, the Nature Hub’s Ann Dolling and Elisabet Bohlin outline the health hub’s portal.

The Nordic Nature Health Hub was developed within an EU (Interreg Bothnia-Atlantica)- project (2018-2022). The priority was to preserve, protect, promote and develop natural and cultural heritage, specifically to increase sustainable utilisation of natural and cultural heritage in the project area, which was the counties Middle Ostrobothnia and Ostrobothnia in Finland and Västerbotten in Sweden. The target group for the project was nature companies in the area, and ten entrepreneurs each from Sweden and Finland participated in the project. After the end of the project, the portal is now maintained by SLU (Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences.) The hub is a web portal for nature entrepreneurs, researchers, organisations, authorities and anyone interested in the effect of animals and nature on human health. The portal is divided into the themes; Research, Education, Nature entrepreneurship and Tools and is available in Swedish and English.

The research pages are designed for those who want to know more about worldwide nature-based research. One part is popular science and easier to assimilate. Here you can read about the background about nature-based health research and the concept of nature-based health through history. Research clearly shows that people are positively impacted by nature stays and contact with animals. You can also read about what about green environments and the contact with animals that has such a positive effect and how this works. There is also a chapter about the research methods used and how the research is evaluated. For those who want to learn more about the research field there is a detailed review about different research areas as nature and human health, animals and human health, the appearance of forest for human health, forest therapy and forest bathing. There are also reviews about recreation and wellness, nature and childhood, the impact of water on human health, the immune system and also a part about Covid and the changed pattern of nature visits. The setup of the pages are scientific with references to scientific papers and the entire references are found in an alphabetic list. Each article has a link to an open article or an abstract.

The education pages focus on Nordic courses and educations about nature and animals impacts on human health. The higher education present both courses, bachelor´s and master´s programmes. However, there is only one programme aiming on human health specifically and that is the master´s program Outdoor Environments for Health and Wellbeing at SLU in Sweden. There are some other programmes but their orientation is more on tourism and outdoor life and nature guidance. There are also several independent university courses on nature, animals and human health. Furthermore, there is a variety of courses on adult educations centers, ‘folk high schools’ and secondary schools about health, tourism and outdoor life, nature guides and so on. There is also a selection of Nordic educations given by private companies, study associations and other organizations.

The nature entrepreneurship pages comprise interviews with nature entrepreneurs from Finland and Sweden. There is also a guidebook for nature entrepreneurs, but it is only available in Swedish. The nature entrepreneurs tells about their business. Johan with the company Outside Kallan in Finland, is a nature entrepreneur who brings people out in the forest or to the natural and cultural heritage in Ostrobothnia. He is not working explicitly with human health yet, but is thinking about developing his company in that direction. The interest for relaxation and presence exercises are increasing. 

Ewa is another entrepreneur with the company called OF Nature in Sweden. She uses her farm, where she lives, in the company. There they have hens, ducks, dogs and cats and have had horses. Ewa has worked with psychiatry and moved into stress rehabilitation where she worked as rehabilitation coordinator for 16 years. Her focus has been particularly on developing work-training places. Now she works with rehabilitation using nature and her farm. There are good opportunities for cultivation and there is plenty of room. She also has a barn that is used for presence exercises. The target group is primarily people of working age who come via projects or government agencies. “The idea is to be able to receive people suffering from mental ill-health, perhaps due to spending too much time at home, and people with stress-related ill-health, for a few hours at a time. My idea, she says, is to have these activities on the farm, to grow things, to stay with the animals, or whatever people want to do – but also to carry out some seasonal activities.”

The Nature-based Health Map is a tool developed during the project. The map lets you take part in, and provide feedback on, how various health-promoting places in nature are perceived. By clicking on the smiley icon at the top of the map, a form opens up where you can give answers about how you feel about the nature you are in. You can also switch layers on and off and access information on paths and trails, outdoor facilities, protected nature and quiet areas. By clicking on the information icon, you can get additional information on the layers in the map, such as the name of a nature conservation area or a path. You do not need to sign in or download an app to use the map. The map service works in both web browsers and as a mobile web application. (Note: The mapping service does not work optimally in the Internet Explorer browser. Use Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Safari.)

Other tools tested in the project measures health effects on the nature entrepreneurs’ customers. The project investigated whether it was possible to measure positive health effects of staying in natural environments as a visitor to nature entrepreneurs. We wanted to know if the customer and the entrepreneur got valuable information and benefits from measuring stress, recovery and mental state. Self-reported mental states improved substantially when customers visited nature entrepreneurs. However, heart rate variability, which measures stress, didn’t change. One explanation for that is that physical activity masked the stress recovery, because HRV reacts to both physical and psychological stress.

We have set up meeting places for networking and exchange of experiences. We have started discussion groups where the aim is to join a group and exchange experiences, share literature, discuss problems and learn new things from others who work in or are interested in the connection between animals, nature and human health.

Ann Dolling and Elisabet Bohlin oversaw the Nordic Nature Health Hub project from 2018 to 2022. The project was coordinated by the Natural Resource Institute LUKE in Finland. The work was carried out together with Centria University of Applied Sciences, Vaasa University/Levón Institute, SLU, the Norrbotten-Västerbotten Economic Association, Region Västerbotten, Umeå University, Kristinestads Business center AB and the Västerbotten County Administrative Board. The work was financed with funds from EU Interreg Bothnia-Atlantica, together with Region Västerbotten and the Ostrobothnian Federation.