The importance of nature during the COVID-19 pandemic

Last changed: 23 January 2023
Peaople winterfishing on a lake ice

More visits to the forest

During the Covid pandemic, the pattern of visits in nature has changed to include both more time spent in nature and more visits than before (Robinson et al 2020). The British men who took part in the study hoped that their health and well-being would be boosted by being in nature and that it would help them cope with their everyday life during the pandemic. Those that felt best spent time close to green spaces and allotments. Forest visits also increased in Czechia during the pandemic and those questioned considered that forest visits were important for reducing stress and improving mental and physical health (Bamwesigye et al 2021). During the pandemic, Germany saw a doubling of visits to the forest and the outdoor stays consisted of extended afternoon visits rather than short visits at lunchtime, as was the case before (Derk et al 2020). The type of visitor also changed, with more young people, families with children and others travelling to the nature areas than was previously the case, when the most frequent visitors to the forest were locals.

In Australia the use of green outdoor environments increased, which for some, helped reduce stress. At the same time, however, the opportunity and the desire to go out into the green environment was seen to vary greatly in society (Berdejo-Espinola et al 2021). Some increased their time in nature, while others reduced it. Many who did not visit nature before the Covid pandemic went out for the first time during the pandemic. Old people did not increase their visits to nature, and those who had their own garden used this instead of wild nature. The distance to the green areas was not decisive; people changed their nature-based habits regardless of the distance to green environments.

Fewer visits to nature

Not all studies show that contact with nature has increased, and there is a difference between spontaneous visits and organised activity. This situation described above mostly relate to spontaneous and unorganised visits to nature. Because of pandemic restrictions, organised outdoor activities in larger groups have usually been cancelled. In the United States, it emerged that this caused young people to reduce their outdoor activities and they felt mentally worse during the pandemic due to the decrease in this activity (Jackson et al 2021). 

How nature was used and not used

The forest has become very important during the pandemic, but it has been used not only for the outdoor visits themselves but also as a place for social exchange (Weinbrenner et al 2021). Nature has been one place where people could meet each other and maintain a safe distance.

Greek students with a forestry focus felt mentally ill because the university closed down and switched to distance learning (Karasmanaki & Tsantopoulos 2020). The students experienced negative feelings, such as anger, fear, panic and despair. Although staying and exercising outdoors was allowed during the 42 days of lockdown, the students did not take advantage of the opportunity.

Forest bathing and COVID-19

A Spanish study found three hours of forest bathing induced positive feelings, more energy, increased levels of kindness and attention, whilst anxiety, anger, fatigue, tension and depressive moods decreased amongst participants (Muro et al 2022). The authors believe that forest bathing can be used for preventive purposes to counteract the psychological side effects of the pandemic.

Some scientists in Italy believe that forest bathing in the Mediterranean environment helps lower COVID-19 mortality rates due to the breathing in of gaseous, antiviral compounds emitted by plants (Roviello & Roviello 2022). They believe they have identified a correlation between the higher number of trees and the lower COVID-19 mortality rate. This is explained by the fact that trees emit gaseous organic compounds (known as phytoncides) which, a molecular study suggests, may bind to the coronavirus and act as a spike protein, in the same way as a vaccine. This, together with proximity to the sea, a mild climate and Mediterranean food, could be the basis for a lower mortality rate, according to the scientists.

A review article asserts that forest bathing and physical activity can be used as a treatment for COVID-19 (Roviello et al 2021). The reasoning is this: physical activity can have a preventive action against viral infections because exercise triggers biological processes in the body that lead to a better natural defence against viral infections. In addition, exercising in a Mediterranean forest can boost the health benefits due to the breathing in of phytoncides. Forest bathing can also reduce stress, decrease cortisol levels and help the immune system with the aid of the phytoncides. The conclusions drawn by the researchers are quite challenging and should be seen as one possible scenario.

Ecosystem services

In Germany, the importance of ecosystem services was examined during the Covid pandemic (Beckmann-Wübbelt et 2021). The inhabitants preferred the nearby ecosystem services, the most important of which was recreation in the urban and 'peri-urban' forests, irrespective of how often people went out. The number of people who visited these forests increased during the pandemic, and the participants in the study emphasised the importance of stress reduction at this particular time.

The importance of nature sounds

Nature sounds studied in an Australian National Park proved to be more restorative during the pandemic compared with previously (Qui et al 2021). The experience of the sound of water was most restful when people were most stressed (i.e., during the corona pandemic).

Virtual reality

Chinese workers with stressful jobs during the pandemic (policemen, doctors and nurses) watched a two-minute video of nature scenes every day for five days, whilst a control group was watching urban scenes (Hu et al 2022). The results showed that, after five days, the self-assessed well-being of those who watched nature films increased, but that of those who watched urban films did not.

A video of forest environments was compared with a film of urban environments, shown to people who had been quarantined in Italy during the pandemic. The forest environment proved to be restorative and anxiety-diminishing, although the effect was short-lived (Zabini et al 2020).

/Text: Ann Dolling


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