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Woods cool you down and are good for your health

(Vienna, 17-08-2015) Although the tropical summer of 2015 seems to be over, the meteorologists are still promising summer temperatures for the next few days – and, according to the experts, in future we will have even more such heatwaves due to climate change. And there is one place that is always guaranteed to cool you down: the woods. And that's not all, according to Daniela Haluza at the Public Health Center of the Institute of Environmental Health at MedUni Vienna: "Just 10 minutes spent in the woods or forest will have health benefits."

As part of its Green Public Health research conducted in collaboration with the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, a team of researchers from MedUni Vienna has collated the existing scientific knowledge about the health benefits of woodland. This covered a total of 149 articles and 31 publications on the subject that appeared between 1993 and 2013.

According to Haluza, the central findings are as follows: Regularly spending time in the woods contributes to physical relaxation and recuperation, helps to strengthen the immune system, improves sleep quality and balances the central nervous system. The latter controls all vital involuntary physical processes and enables the body to adapt rapidly to changing situations. It therefore reduces stress. "In turn this lowers the heart rate, blood pressure and reduces muscular tension, less of the stress hormone cortisol is produced but more of the mood hormones serotonin and dopamine are secreted," explains the environmental health expert from MedUni Vienna. These beneficial effects can be further enhanced by physical exercise.

And, by the way, Austria is one the European countries with the largest area of woodland and forest and, contrary to the global trend, this area is increasing in Austria: 47.6% of the country is wooded, equating to roughly 4 million hectares.

Green lung, green wings

In towns and cities, on the other hand – especially with tropical temperatures such as we have experienced this summer – greening of buildings is becoming increasingly important. Apart from the cooling effect, the main advantages are: reducing air pollution, protecting against UV radiation, reducing energy consumption, retaining rainwater, improving the microclimate. A study conducted in Florida has shown that, over the course of a whole day, the temperature on a green roof stayed at a constant 28 – 31°C, whereas, on a roof without greening, the heat increased from 30°C to 57°C between 9 am and 8 pm.
Even in our cities, the trend is more towards green spaces. "By 2017 London will have a footbridge over the Thames that is completely wooded, the so-called Garden Bridge," reports Haluza. And in New York there are plans for the "Dragonfly" project, a skyscraper with two towers and green wings." It is planned to plant hanging gardens in these. "That is no longer merely a utopian vision," says the MedUni Vienna expert, "but rather how towns will actually look in the future".

According to Haluza, Vienna is on the "right track" when it comes to green spaces and greening of buildings and she refers to the annual Mercer study. The current ranking for towns with the highest quality of life puts Austria's capital city at No. 1 in the world – in front of Zürich, Auckland and Munich. Haluza: "Of course the many parks and green spaces in Vienna play an important role in this assessment."

» Studie "Zur Gesundheitswirkung von Waldlandschaften"