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Health and wellbeing: how do woods help?

Heli Gittens (Photo: Aberystwyth University)
Heli Gittens (Photo: Aberystwyth University)

Heli Gittens is working on a PhD at Bangor University to find out about the impacts that taking part in woodland activity can have on health and wellbeing.

Heli is one of a number of PhD students we support as part of our research programme. We interviewed her to find out more about her research and how it will tell us more about people and woodland.

1. What subject area is your PhD project on?

In a nutshell, it’s about woodlands and wellbeing. It's a joint project between the School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography and the School of Psychology at Bangor University.

We’re working with the Coed Lleol project Actif Woods Wales which runs woodland activities for improved health and wellbeing. The project is evaluating the impact of their activities and also finding out more about what encourages or dissuades people from using woods,

2. What stage are you at in your PhD?

I’ve just finished the first year, so there's a long way to go, but I’ve been getting stuck in reading about existing studies, developing research methods and carrying out baseline questionnaires.

3. Why did you apply for this PhD?

I’m really interested in how projects like Actif Woods Wales can support people’s wellbeing by encouraging them to get out and about in the woods and how that can help the wellbeing of woodlands too by people getting involved in conservation activities. Coed Lleol’s ambition is that it becomes normal practice for woodland owners and managers and providers of health and social care to use woodlands for wellbeing. That seems like a very worthwhile intention to me.

4. What do you hope to discover?

We want to find out more about how getting involved in a project like Actif Woods Wales impacts people’s wellbeing over time, for example, whether it improves their self esteem or encourages them to get more physically or socially active.

Boost your wellbeing.

Visit your nearest woods

5. Name one unexpected thing you’ve always wanted to achieve

I feel very lucky as I’ve travelled a lot and lived all over the world, so now what I want to achieve are simple pleasures like getting my veggie patch up and running! I think the next thing on my bucket list is a camping and canoeing trip down the River Wye.

6. What’s a typical day doing research for your PhD?

That really depends – some days will be in the office, reading up and writing about other nature and wellbeing studies. Other days will be visiting Actif Woods Wales to carry out questionnaires. This can involve anything from taking part in felt making to a mindfulness or woodland frisbee session!

7. What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to do for your research so far?

I’m not sure I’ve had to do anything too strange just yet, but doing woodland gym was a good challenge. Our outdoor instructor Karen really put us through our paces doing squats and jumping jacks among the pines.

We already know spending time in our natural environment is beneficial. Heli's research is building on the connection between our woods and wellbeing (Photo: Jill Jennings / WTML)
We already know spending time in our natural environment is beneficial. Heli's research is building on the connection between our woods and wellbeing (Photo: Jill Jennings / WTML)

8. What made you want to do a PhD?

I’ve worked a lot in both social care and conservation, so this project really knits them together. I was drawn to this PhD as I liked the collaborative nature of it - Welsh Government has a project to support research with company partners (KESS), so we co-developed the proposal with the Woodland Trust and Coed Lleol, the Welsh branch of the Small Woods Association, tailoring the research to their needs.

9. What’s your favourite biscuit for when you’re out and about doing field work?

Well, sometimes cooking is one of the Actif Woods Wales Activities, so if I’m lucky, there’s home-made Welsh cakes and brannocks cooked on the campfire.

10. How could the findings from your research help the Trust?

The Trust is keen to find out more about woodlands and wellbeing and encouraging woodland use, particularly with groups who are less likely to use them, so I hope that my results will be able to provide some useful information and guidance on this. Getting out and about in nature offers such a fantastic and easily accessible resource which prevents many illnesses and promotes health and wellbeing and the Trust is committed to making woodlands part of this.

Boost your wellbeing.

Visit your nearest woods