mental health

Three reasons why being in nature and the outdoors is good for our health and wellbeing

Get outside for some fresh air, it’ll work wonders!

Woodlands on the Downs, Clifton, Bristol. May 2018 - Film photo Pentax K1000, Kodak Colour 250

I am sure you, just like me, have at one point or another been told to get outdoors to blow the cobwebs away - but why? The idea for this blog post came about after listening to the Radio 4 Forest 404 podcast on the train last weekend (listen to it! its a super cool eco-thriller with the soundtrack by Bonobo and supporting science snippets! whats not to love!). Whilst listening to a supporting science snippet from Alex Smalley from the regarding the outdoors and wellbeing, I realised I’d camped more weekends in the last month than slept in my own bed. Plus I’m imminently off on holiday for another 8 days of camping! I am fairly certain that despite it’s amazingness my thermarest isn’t as luxuriously comfortable as my double bed. So, there must be another draw to being out in nature.

Reason 1: Our hard-wired love for nature

We humans have something deep within our psyche pushing us towards tree-hugging… “biophilia”; we love (philia) connecting with living (bio) things. The “biophilia hypothesis” first introduced and popularised by Edward O. Wilson in 1984 suggested that this connection with nature is why we enjoy looking at baby animals, have pets, decorate our homes with house plants and spend time outdoors.

Playing on the beach, me and my sister 1997, in Majorca.

Playing on the beach, me and my sister 1997, in Majorca.

Have we lost touch?

However, as we have become more developed, in turn spending more time indoors and behind screens we have also become more disconnected with nature. A National Trust report coins that we as a nation, especially our children, are exhibiting symptoms of the modern phenomenon ‘Nature Deficit Disorder, children watch more than 17 hours of television per week, but only play outside for 2.5 hours on average. The scary part of the report was the fact that Britain’s 11-15 year olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen, 7.5 hours a day, equating to 53 hours a week, an increase of 40% in a decade. WOW.

Is it all bad news?

Re-establishing connection with living things has become an important area in the field of conservation. Fuelled by many factors, biophilia seems to be on the rise. In the UK, the houseplant industry (£2.2 billion) is now worth more than the UK music industry (£2 billion). Despite the day to day lack of outdoor play for children, people are visiting nature more too, Natural England found visits at least once a week have increased from 54% in 2010 to 62% in 2018, and in England’s most deprived areas this has gone from 38% to 51%. Natural beauty can elicit feelings of awe, such as looking at the view from a mountain top, restoring mental fatigue.

Driven by nationwide and global pressures, on 1st May 2019 the UK government announced a climate emergency. Fingers crossed that the growing (pardon the pun) resurgence of caring for the planet continues! I believe that when I go outside on a walk or camping that due to my innate human biophilia (it sounds like some sort of terrible affliction!!) my body and brain feels better - but it gets even more sciencey than just the feeling of joy.

Woodland path, LHW Weekend 2019.

Woodland path, LHW Weekend 2019.

View from Tryfan, February 2019

View from Tryfan, February 2019

Reason 2: The magic of ‘Green Health’

Being surrounded by green living things is good for you; boosting ‘green health’. In Japan, forest bathing, called “Shinrinyoku” is a short leisurely visit to a forest, regarded as being similar to natural aromatherapy and is common practice among its population. Certain conifer trees release monoterpenes, a molecule that may reduce stress and stimulate digestion and immune function. Trees also release phytoncides, organic compounds with antibacterial properties that could also be health boosting for up to a month after a 30 minute trip to the forest. So forest bathing is good, but you probably can’t replicate the benefits sniffing on a ‘Little Tree' Forest Fresh car air freshener.

Woodlands, The Downs, Clifton, Bristol, May 2018 - Pentax K1000, Kodak Colour 250

Reason 3: The mystery of ‘Blue Health’

It’s not only ‘green health’ that has attracted attention, but ‘blue health’ is becoming more in the spotlight. I have found being around or on the water is really relaxing. Scuba diving feels like a turbo fuelled shot of chillaxation and rowing brings me really close to our ‘Blue Mother Nature’. Down in Devon at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health (University of Exeter) the BlueHealth project has found that being near aquatic environments is good for your health - but they’re not sure why. There’s so many possibilities. Some research has shown that moving bodies of water give off negative ions which could reduce depression. There really is no conclusive answer - further research into the importance of blue health is needed.

Saunton Sands, Devon, UK, May 2018 - Pentax K1000 Kodak Colour 250

Saunton Sands, Devon, UK, May 2018 - Pentax K1000 Kodak Colour 250

Coastal path, South Malta, October 2018. Pentax K1000, Kodak Colour 250

Why is it important to understand blue and green health?

The science surrounding why is complex, confusing and has many factors to draw out and understand. Especially in the changing planet we live in. Which makes me wonder, with future sea level rise, will living near the coast remain as relaxing as it is now? I’m not sure, but I imagine if you’re house may be washed away by erosion it might not be so relaxing to live there all the time. Do cloudy days have as much benefit as sunny days? Again, the intertwined effects of sunlight must be important.

Answering these questions (and many more) surrounding green and blue health is important. Lack of accessibility to green and blue space remains a problem. Living in Bristol I can quite easily access one of the many city parks, but without a car escaping to National Parks isn’t easy (or cheap!). Building up knowledge surrounding green and blue health will enable urban designers to implement green and blue space effectively, improving physical and psychological health.

Urban green space provides residents with psychological relaxation, stress alleviation, it can stimulate social cohesion, support physical activity, and reduces exposure to air pollutants, noise and excessive heat. There are profound beneficial effects such as improved mental health, reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and death, and improved pregnancy outcomes. Most recently, researchers in Barcelona found that regenerating a a Blue space, a riverside park along the Besòs river, enabled 6,000 adults use the park each day, plus suggest that visitors increased physical activity could prevent up to seven deaths and save 23 million euros in public health spending each year.

Bluebells, Woodland, Royal Tunbridge Wells, May 2019

My final thought…

I’m happy to say I have more than 14 houseplants in my bedroom, I embrace my biophilia. I probably have an addiction to sniffing tree pheromones and ocean air (I don’t think I am alone in this). But I know it makes me feel good, even ‘the science’ says so. Join me, I reckon it’s fairly contagious - its good for you too!

Get outside for some fresh air, it’ll work wonders!!!

Fungi in Devon, February 2018.

Want to learn more, read these:
1. Anxious, depressed, distracted - what if the cure is just outside?

2. The Nature Fix - Florence Williams

3. 11 Scientific Reasons you should be spending more time outside - with all the papers to support their claims

My three year mission to the top of Ben Nevis...

My Ben Nevis story started a long time ago. In 2013/14, my mental health had declined enough for me to voluntarily agree I should be admitted into hospital.

“You don’t fall up, you just fall down”

A significant factor in my mental health recovery has been falling in love with nature and the outdoors once again. Initially forced by family and friends to get outside, I now would much rather be exploring the countryside! Having grown up going on walking holidays as a family, my sister Beth and I decided to go on holiday to the Lake District last year. I’d gone back to work properly only 6 months before so this was my first holiday in a while. I was unfit with sore joints and minimal self-confidence. I didn’t really believe much was possible, but Beth assured me that I wouldn’t know unless I tried.

Me, April 2016. 

Me, April 2016. 

We successfully got to the top of the Old Man of Coniston (803m). The views were spectacular! We decided on the way down that we would do some more mountains one day. I also internally decided that if I was going to do more mountains, I should get a lot fitter. I didn’t quite fancy huffing and puffing all the way up again.

Fast forward to May 2017. Beth and I are driving up to the West Highlands, I am the happiest I have ever been and am 6 stone lighter. We decided that should we be lucky enough with the weather we would try to climb Ben Nevis.

Affectionately known as ‘The Ben’, it stands at 1345m above sea level in the Grampian Mountains, West Highlands, Scotland. It’s fame for being the highest mountain in the U.K attracts 125,000 people to the summit and a further 100,000 people partial ascents each year. With the vast majority heading up on the mountain track that works out at 4327 people / week, 618 people / day. Beth and I decided that we wouldn’t trundle up the Ben with the masses and would instead go via Càrn Mòr Dearg (CMD) (1221m) over the CMD Arête and then up to the Ben.

Off we go up Carn Mor Dearg with the beautiful sights of the Ben cliff face!

Off we go up Carn Mor Dearg with the beautiful sights of the Ben cliff face!

On the Thursday of our holiday up in Scotland, we were blessed with clear skies and sunshine. We followed the route on walkhighlands.co.uk. The blurb describes it as “a truly spectacular route incorporating two Munros. It will live long in the memory and does true justice to the mountain.” We started with what felt like a never ending slog up the CMD slope and then had a glorious walk and scramble round the ridge and across the arête. The route really allows you to take in the enormity of the northern cliff faces of the Ben. The views the entire day were absolutely spectacular – we could even see to the Isle of Skye!

Beth looking over to the arete and up the Ben! Stunning!

Beth looking over to the arete and up the Ben! Stunning!

At the top of Ben Nevis, 1345m.

At the top of Ben Nevis, 1345m.

Beth and I at the summit

Beth and I at the summit

This route would have been unimaginable to complete a year ago. The route is over 20km and after getting to the top of the Ben it is a long way back. Despite this, it was one of the greatest days walking I have had in my entire life. I was elated at the summit of Ben Nevis – but I was emotional upon arriving back to the car. This mountain had been at the back of my mind on every walk, swim and (almost) every meal for a year. I did it with the greatest walking buddy in the world, my sister Beth.

As for falling down, I now have strategies to protect both my knees and thoughts from slipping. To save my knees I use two poles when walking downhill. To look after my mind I draw and go into the outdoors. 

So there we go. To many more mountains. Cheers!

Sarah

P.S. I am also very sorry to all those on the Ben mountain track on May 25th 2017 for I sang multiple Disney songs at the top of my voice on descent round Lochan Meall an t’Suidhe. I was overjoyed to be walking on soft boggy grass compared to knee compacting gravel. I am sure you could tell…