Being outdoors and doing exercise makes you feel good: Fact. It is certainly a fact for me, but is it actually a fact? I take it as a given that everyone (or the vast majority of people) feel better if they get themselves out into nature, suck in some lungfulls of fresh air, take a moment to revel in the natural beauty that surrounds us and then stomp off up a hill to get the blood moving. But, for World Mental Health Days, I wanted to find out if there is some scientific underpinning to what I feel.
Shockingly, over 25% of people in the UK will suffer from a mental illness of some kind during their lifetime and a great many of those will be afflicted by some level of depression. According to a 2016 NHS survey, as a nation, we spent £266.6 million that year alone on anti-depressants – it is a figure that has doubled in just a decade.
What role can being outdoors and getting active with some biking or hiking or wild swimming play in combatting this epidemic?
A big one according to the studies! There are dozens of them pointing to the beneficial effects of just getting out into a green environment. This one sums it up https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21996763 Scientists in Japan took 420 people from the city into 35 different forests, where all they had to do was sit. They then tested them against a group who remained in the city. The results showed a 12.4% decrease in cortisol level, 7.0% decrease in sympathetic nervous activity, 1.4% decrease in systolic blood pressure, and 5.8% decrease in heart rate. What’s more tests on their immune systems showed a 23% improvement in their immune function lasting up to a month after they had gone back home.
If you add some brisk exercise into the equation, it is clear that we are onto a winner. This is what the NHS has to say, “Like other forms of moderate activity, regular walking is proven to reduce your risk of some chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. It can also improve your mood and reduce your risk of depression.”
The science behind it is simple, says Sian Williams, TV Presenter and Psychologist, “Being more active makes the heart work more efficiently, which means more oxygen and nutrients are pumped around the body. In the brain, this promotes growth and development in the blood vessels, the little gaps where communication happens, in the nerve cells themselves. In short – the more active you are, the less your brain shrinks!
John Muir, a fellow Scot who hails from my Dad’s hometown of Dunbar and went on to found America’s wonderful national parks, put it like this “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
I know exactly what he means. When I had a job working hard in an office, the thing that kept me vaguely sane and refreshed was my holidays – which invariably involved a tent, a very uncomfortable sleeping mat and plenty of sweat. Now, I get to test things out for Whereabouts Holidays, and I can definitely recommend you check them out for some ideas!
For me, it is all about unleashing your inner Adventurer and getting out there. It doesn’t matter if it is a ten minute jog in your nearest park, a day-long ramble in the Lakes, a spin on your bike or (if you are very brave) a plunge into the steely waves of the North Sea. The important thing is to do it. You’ll feel happier, healthier and hungrier after. You will also deserve that wee slice of cake.
Sian Williams again, “Why outside? Because you can breathe. Or shout. Or run. Because when you have an anxiety, tossing it into the sea or the hills or into a forest, seems to make it diminish. So yes, it’s the oxygen and the nutrients and the growth in your nerve cells. But it’s also the breath and the pause and the stillness. It’s the magnificence of the outdoors – just the great big vast complexity of it – that can take all your problems and absorb them. That’s why being outside is good for your mental health.”
If that doesn’t get you reaching for your fleece, nothing will!
Don’t forget to wrap up warm as that Autumn chill starts to bite – some great tips here and some very tempting purchases here which might give you that extra impetus to set off for a weekend of wildness and to leave the couch for the wonderful world waiting for you outside.