Embrace the Outdoors: How Trees Can Enhance Your Health and Well-Being


Spending summertime outside is a great way to reduce stress, be active, and get a dose of vitamin D. However, as enjoyable as the sun can be, it’s important to find some shade to safely enjoy the great outdoors during the hot months. Finding a tree with a shady spot underneath is a perfect way to cool off and relax while spending time outside. Large shade trees such as bur oaks, pin oaks, sycamores, tulip trees, London planetree, and birches provide excellent shade even on the hottest days.

While trees may thrive in the sun, overexposure for humans can lead to adverse health effects such as sunburn, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Even mild reddening of the skin from sun exposure signals damage. Sunburn can blister and peel the skin, and over time, excessive sun exposure can accelerate the aging process, causing the skin to become leathery, mottled, and wrinkled. The most serious effect is an increased risk of developing skin cancer. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet light damages the fibers in your skin called elastin. When these fibers break down, your skin begins to sag, stretch and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. Your skin also bruises and tears more easily, in addition to taking longer to heal. So, while sun damage to your skin may not be apparent when you’re young, it’ll show later in life.”

Heat exhaustion, which happens when your body overheats, includes symptoms like heavy sweating and a rapid pulse. It is one of three heat-related illnesses, with heat cramps being the mildest and heatstroke being the most serious. Fortunately, heat-related conditions are preventable. By applying broad-spectrum sunscreen, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking it easy during the hottest parts of the day, one can stay safe and happy while enjoying the outdoors.

Besides offering shade, many tree species also provide spring flowers and bright fall colors. It’s important to choose species that will thrive in your area. Planting native trees increases the chance of them reaching their full potential and helps create a productive ecosystem. Urban Forestry Coordinator Emma Hanigan notes, “A well-chosen shade tree can also serve an important role in creating privacy and blocking wind and noise. For this purpose, look for varieties with dense foliage and appropriate spacing to get both shade and screening.”

Spending time near trees where you live, work, and play can improve your overall well-being. A growing body of research shows that trees reduce pollution, lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress, and increase physical activity. The Million Hearts® initiative and CDC Foundation encourage you to “Start Small. Live Big.” You can begin with winter aerobic activities such as snowshoeing, skiing, biking, sledding, and walking in nature to temporarily increase heart rate, strengthen your heart, and burn calories. Planning for spring by planting a tree can make a difference in your community.

A study from the Women’s Health Initiative examined the relationship between tree loss due to the invasive emerald ash borer and cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease. This study, spanning 15 states, found that women living in areas affected by the emerald ash borer had an increased risk of these diseases. Other research has linked tree cover and green spaces to increased activity and lower obesity rates. Another study suggests that more neighborhood tree cover in urban areas is related to better overall health, primarily through lower obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma.

For more information on small steps to living big, visit http://www.HeartHealthySteps.org. To learn more about the connection between trees and heart health, visit http://www.vibrantcitieslab.com.


  • Cleveland Clinic: “Ultraviolet (UV) radiation: What it is & its effect on Your skin”
  • Donovan, et al. (2015) study on emerald ash borer and health
  • Ulmer, et al. (2016) study on urban tree cover and health


Person sitting under shade tree near river
A man sitting on a park bench looking out over the Cedar River in the shade near a parked bicycle. Vinton, Iowa.
Photo Credit: Shaila Claibourn, Iowa Department of Natural Resources