A Tree a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!

Written by Sarah P
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We see them all the time - on our walk to school, to work or on a drive through the country. We admire their beauty and are in awe of their size, but we rarely think of them as being crucial to our health. Trees are, as much as food, exercise and sleep, essential for healthy living.

Trees are, on a basic level, vital for our day-to-day living. They contribute to our health in a way that goes largely unnoticed, which unfortunately also means often taken for granted. In the cities, we are even worse. We often regard trees' established roots as an imposition to our 'urban growth'. Maybe trees are just for the wilderness? Maybe we should keep our concrete jungle tree-free? Urbanization in its relentless development of roads, shopping malls and houses, rips trees from the ground and uproots life. Cities need trees! We need trees! They are one of the greatest natural contributors to good health. Let's explore why.

The health advantage provided by our leafy friends generally falls into two categories: pollution-control and the benefit of the spaces they create. Before exploring these two benefits, let me give you some food for thought- or if you will, bark for thought!

  • 100 trees remove five tons of CO2 per year
  • 100 trees remove about 1000 lbs of pollutants per year
  • 1 acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day
  • 1 acre of trees absorbs enough CO2 over a year's time to equal the amount you produce when you drive your car 26,000 miles.

Who knew these silent giants were working so hard? But how do these numbers translate into noticeable health benefits?

Well, first, trees support healthy living by mitigating pollution and facilitating the carbon cycle. Trees' magnanimous leaves act as sponges, soaking up airborne pollutants such as dust, ash, smoke, pollen and smog, and holding them in their botanic fingers. This powerful filtration system means that we breathe less of these toxins into our lungs and we save ourselves from many years of respiratory problems. This is especially important for those who suffer from asthma. The less harmful irritants floating around the atmosphere, the less of them you breathe
in and thus, the less exacerbated your condition becomes. In this sense, trees are natural air purifiers. Additionally, trees are necessary and prominent contributors to the carbon cycle. They suck up dangerous CO2, and in exchange, produce precious oxygen. Again, research shows that the incidence of asthma increases as trees are destroyed for various urban developments.

The combination of these two types of health benefits reveals trees' true healing power. Therefore the more trees Brussels keeps, the less risk city life poses to its inhabitants' health. So the next time you see a shopping complex replacing trees in your neighborhood, think for a second about the reduction in the quality of air before celebrating the new 'convenience'.

The second health benefit of trees comes from the type of spaces they create. Research shows a strong link between the existence of urban forests and the actual uses of their space. In other words, the more trees exist, the more people use the area. Generally, city-dwellers utilize these areas for physical activity. Apparently, people feel more inclined to "get outside and exercise" when their surroundings are greener and more natural. Just think of how much more appealing a run sounds through Bois de la Cambre than down Chaussée de Wavre. Obviously more activity leads to better health, less chance of obesity and a substantial decrease in the risk of heart disease and diabetes - yet more reasons to maintain a 'little green' in the grayness of the concrete jungle.

Trees are also responsible for reducing the noise pollution in cities. Their tall, expansive bodies create a strong buffer against all noise, but predominantly high-frequency sounds, which are actually the most distressing frequency range for humans (Miller, 1997). Decreasing the amount of metropolis murmur that we hear on a daily basis leads to lower stress levels. A reduction in the amount of stress people experience is consistently shown to be correlated with wellbeing - the lower the level, the better the health.

Finally, there is a growing body of research that shows a strong link between recuperation in hospitals and access to nature. Patients who could either see trees from their windows, or walk outside in a treed area recovered faster, irrespective of illness. Similar results were found with employees who worked in offices with green spaces - workers who took breaks in natural areas were more productive and took less sick days than those who did not have access to these types of areas.

As we can see, trees are essential for reducing stress, increasing physical activity, filtering air and contributing to our overall experience of better health. In this sense, it is quite appropriate to regard trees as subsidizing our wellness on a day-to-day basis. They are literally working non-stop to make our lives better. Despite this, and the overinflated sense of importance we sometimes feel we have in this ecosystem, we too are dependent on the presence of the forests. These luscious clusters of oxygen-producing foliage are essential for our daily survival - all 7 billion of us - so let's make sure we to take care of them. In cities, these natural structures are as important as the manmade ones.

Come join Sunbeams in our tree-planting event on 20 March 2011, or, if you can't make it out, plant a tree in your own backyard and watch your health improve!

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