Life & Living
The Great Outdoors: why getting outdoors is so good for our mental health by Niobe Shaw
The UK’s wellness industry is worth billions of pounds, with thousands of self-care products on the market. Each come with promises to help with sleep, stress or happiness. But here’s a secret – getting outdoors can do just that, with no price tag attached.
The naturalist John Muir knew it. Over a century ago, he wrote, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”
More recently, during the pandemic, the outdoors became a source of solace and a space to socialise. More and more of us are noticing nature’s role in our wellbeing, and science backs this up. Here are just a few ways getting outdoors can help us.
Exercising outside has long been recommended as a great way to improve both physical and mental health. It’s considered more effective for treating mild depression than antidepressants! Exercise releases endorphins, boosting your mood. Plus, the rhythm of walking, running or cycling can be meditative, helping your mind to switch off.
Evidence now suggests that simply getting outside – whether exercising or not – is a fast way to help increase happiness. In fact, it’s been shown that spending just five minutes among the trees can have immediate psychological benefits. So no matter how busy you find yourself, getting out into nature for a few minutes a day is important for your health.
We know that getting vitamin D from sunlight helps keep our immune system strong and our bones healthy. Not only that, but it can boost our mood. Mental health professionals have found that getting outdoors often reduces feelings of stress or anger. It can even develop our confidence and self-esteem.
Spending time outdoors suppresses the production of melatonin (the chemical that makes us feel tired). If you ever feel drowsy during the day, a few minutes outside will help to keep you awake and alert. In turn, that makes it easier to drop off at night and to maintain a regular sleeping pattern. Good sleep health promotes a happier mind. It’s all connected!
Countless studies have proven how getting outdoors and surrounding ourselves in nature can have positive effects on our wellbeing. The benefits are so clear, in fact, that ‘eco-therapy’ is now regularly prescribed to support those struggling with their mental health. Often this is with a trained professional therapist, but we can replicate it ourselves.
It’s simple, really. Just consider how getting outside can become part of your routine. It might be as easy as having a daily cuppa in your garden, or you might be walking your pooch round the block each morning anyway. No garden and no dog? Not to worry. There are still plenty of ways to enjoy nature’s psychological boosts.
Summer is well and truly here, so make the most of it. Invite your friends out for picnics rather than meeting at a cafe or the cinema so that you can enjoy the sunshine, snacks and surroundings together in equal measure.
You could also try out different outdoor classes or sports. With the coast, broads and beautiful countryside on our doorsteps, there are plenty of opportunities to take part in paddle-boarding, sailing, walking or cycling groups if you don’t fancy going out
on your own.
Gardening boasts a number of mental and physical health benefits, including real sense of achievement! If you don’t have a garden yourself, consider signing up for an allotment if you have the time, or volunteer at a local community garden. This is a great way to meet neighbours, and socialising is great for our wellbeing too, so a community garden is win-win!
Many of us work full-time, and if your job is based indoors, it isn’t always easy to get outside during the day. Consider parking or alighting the bus further away from the office, and opt for a breath of fresh air at lunchtime by either heading for a short walk or taking your food or a book to a bench outside. It’ll do wonders for your productivity levels; evidence shows that getting outdoors improves working memory and our brain’s ability to pick out important stimuli from less-important ones.
Finally, do what you can to bring the outside inside. Move your table or desk closer to the window so you can see trees and plants. Why not purchase a few indoor plants? These have a calming effect, and help purify the air too.
With the sunshine and long summer days finally here, being outside comes more easily. Get into good habits now, so that when autumn and winter roll around again, you’re in the routine of embracing nature and reaping its psychological benefits. Just make sure you’re wearing a few extra jumpers by then!