Guided walks in the forest, survival training, forest kindergartens, even manager seminars – it seems as if everyone is longing to get back to nature and rediscover the woods and forests. But nature and flora do not just positively impact our psychological health, they have also been proven to improve blood pressure, stress levels, heart rate – even our digestive health. So it is high time we exploited these benefits and used them where we spend most of our time - indoors.
All around the globe, scientists have been exploring the positive effect that exposure to wood products and interiors has on our health and well-being. The foundation for this research was laid by environmental psychologist, Roger Ulrich, in 1984 when he proved that the healing process after an operation or illness could be considerably accelerated by exposure to the great outdoors. In subsequent years, further studies were carried out exploring the benefits of plants and natural materials indoors and were able to establish first connections with stress levels.
In 2010, David Robert Fell at the University of British Columbia was able to provide evidence that wood (and not plants) in indoor spaces positively influenced the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic system is a part of the vegetative nerve system and is primarily responsible for enhancing the performance of organisms, such as heart function, blood pressure and metabolism. Other studies, such as that carried out by Stephen Fraser (2011), also confirmed the correlation between a wood environment and health.
Blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels are lowered – while cognitive performance, concentration skills and even creativity are seen to improve. Furthermore, bringing the natural environment indoors was also shown to improve digestive health, the body's own natural healing ability and its capacity for regeneration.
A school experiment carried out by Maximilian Moser from the Human Research Institute in Klagenfurt, Austria showed just how quickly the benefits can be felt. On average, school children spend between 12,000 and 15,000 hours in school, so Moser attempted to create the optimum conditions for classrooms and found there was a very clear winner – timber! For his experiment, he fitted out two classrooms with conventional building materials and two further classrooms with primarily solid wood materials. Almost immediately notable differences could be seen between the classes, with the heart rate of the pupils in the solid wood classroom dropping by up to six beats per minute, and their vagal tone (cardioprotective factor) increasing significantly. Furthermore, the experiment showed a dramatic reduction in stress levels and an increase in the body's own natural regeneration ability.
But exactly what causes these positive effects? So far there are no definitive answers to be gleaned from these studies, but Moser and his colleagues suspect that there are psychophysiological reasons for the positive impact – i.e. the theory of the correlation between psychological experiences and the resulting physical effects.
Wood – according to scientists – evokes feelings of warmth and of being at one with nature, which in turn increases feelings of comfort and relaxation. While many series of tests explore factors of interior environment, such as indoor climate, noise, air quality, light, colour and ergonomic aspects, few have investigated the psychophysiological effects, begging the question: "What exactly are the effects on people and their health and well-being?"
And it is precisely in this area that there is huge potential for the optimisation of all those indoor environments where we spend the most time – homes, schools, workplaces, hotel rooms, etc. – particularly when the negative impact of so-called residential toxins is already well-known. Headaches, fatigue and even skin rashes are just some of the potential consequences of exposure to volatile organic compounds, such as solvents, often found in plastics, furniture, carpets, house paints and cleaning agents.
By re-thinking our built interior environment and incorporating natural materials, we not only avoid negative health issues, we can also make a significant long-term positive contribution towards our heath and well-being.
While we have so far failed to fully explore the potential of wood and the wide range of different wood species, it is already abundantly clear that the warm, natural aesthetic of wood can provide an inviting and enriching enhancement of our everyday lives.
And, unlike many other raw materials, wood is renewable and recyclable and, thanks to the sustainable forest management, will continue to be available in virtually limitless supply.