How Nature Positively Impacts Our Mental Health and Wellbeing

With ‘Nature’ appearing as the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Vitality investigates the science behind why being outside is good for our mental health.

One thing the pandemic has helped reinforce is the understanding that spending time in nature is good for us. Not too long ago, out of necessity, a walk around the local park (or forest if you’re lucky) was the most exciting outing for many of us. Adding to this, the dawn of remote working even spawned the ‘Fake Commute’[1], a term applied to a trip around the block which tricks our minds into thinking that our daily routine is somehow ‘normal’.

After playing such a big part in our lives over the past 13 months, it makes sense that the theme for this year’s Mental Health Week is nature – the thing many of us seek when we go outside, often without even realising it.

According to Mind, activities like gardening or walking the dog can help improve our mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger and help us feel more relaxed[2] – something put to the test by many of us throughout multiple lockdowns.

These findings were reflected by a recent survey by Vitality involving its members in the UK, which found that one in five surveyed were more anxious and one in four were more stressed than in the pre-lockdown period[3].

With lockdown restrictions easing, it’s important to remember the role that nature, going for a stroll and, of course, physical exercise can all play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of you and your staff. These are the reasons why.

Getting regular exercise outside is easier

World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour from November 2020 recommend that we do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week – or an equivalent combination. However, achieving this during lockdown was not as easy – especially initially. Our data showed 28% fewer physical events, such as cardio sessions, gym workouts and daily step counts, during the first two weeks of the pandemic compared to the earlier part of 2020[4].

Most recent global estimates show that 27.5% adults[5] and up to 81% adolescents[6] do not meet the lower limit of the amount of exercise recommended by WHO.

As well as improving quality of sleep, physical activity is proven to boost cognitive skills, which includes emotional wellbeing as well as increased memory and attention span. A meta-analysis of 15 studies, lasting between one to 12 years involving over 33,000 individuals, found that physical activity is associated with a 38% reduced risk of cognitive decline[1]. Cognitive decline includes everything from the ability to concentrate to dementia.

It’s widely accepted that the benefits of physical activity are wide-ranging and can be felt immediately. Performing physical activity regularly will typically enhance these benefits further – so why not do it outside?

Let the sunshine in!

Exposure to sunlight – and therefore Vitamin D – is another way that being outside can support our health and wellbeing. Studies show that one in five of us suffer from lower levels of vitamin D and this increases to one in three post-winter[2]. Many of us in the UK are starved of it come April, so it is worth recharging our Vit D reserves in the May sunshine (if it ever fully arrives).

As Vitality Magazine explored in a recent article, the vitamin not only contributes to the working of many of the body’s main functions and helps protect against serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease[3] and some cancers[4], it also can also help fight depression and fatigue[5] as well as boosting our immune system[6]. They say sunshine is good for the soul – it is for our mind and body too.

Why not hug a tree?

Usually more associated with hippies and environmental conservationists, apparently there is truth to the mental health benefits associated with hugging trees, if research is to be believed.

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Walking in nature reduces the risk of depression, compared to urban areas[7], according to research by Stanford University in 2015.

In fact, city dwellers have a 20% higher risk of anxiety disorders – and 40% more chance of mood disorders – compared to people in rural areas, the study into neurological brain functions showed. The physical act of hugging of a tree is widely believed by nature fanatics[8] to provide a dose of the happy hormone, serotonin, and oxytocin, which makes us feel warm and content.

Studies have also shown that spending time in nature, exposed to plants, can also boost our immune system[9]. This is because plants release airborne chemicals called phytoncides, which according to experts, have health benefits for humans too. It’s no surprise, then, that plant sales for homes and gardens boomed during the pandemic[10].

Meanwhile, when asked in 2017, only 3% of us believed that we spend enough time with nature even though 90% said it makes us feel happier, according to research by Dr Miles Richardson[11]. One positive side effect of the pandemic is that levels of appreciation for nature will have risen widely and significantly. We hope this continues.

[1]Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: A meta-analysis of prospective studies.

[2] https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritioninthenews/new-reports/983

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2726624/

[4] https://health.usnews.com/health-care/patient-advice/articles/how-much-sun-do-you-need-for-vitamin-d

[5] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2796.2008.02008.x

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166406/

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/how-walking-in-nature-prevents-depression/397172/

[8] https://wildtreeadventures.com/2020/04/22/hugging-trees-is-good-for-us-and-the-trees/

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/health/06real.html

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/31/flower-power-covid-restrictions-fuel-boom-in-plant-and-bulb-sales

[11] https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/how-hugging-trees-can-give-you-a-natural-high-15558

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