It’s official: nature is good for you.
In fact, according to England’s Chief Medical Officer in 2010: “If a medication existed which had a similar effect to physical activity, it would be regarded as a “wonder drug” or a “miracle cure”’.
But nature isn’t just a remedy for a healthy body, it also nurtures a healthy mind. Going to the outdoors boosts our self-esteem, reduces stress and anxiety, increases energy and endorphins, and stimulates our creativity. Physically active people have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed, and staying active helps those who are depressed recover. Come back from a walk outside and you feel renewed and with a fresh perspective. The very language we use reflects these benefits to mental wellbeing: “recharging our batteries” and “reconnecting”.
There’s a growing focus on removing the stigma often attached to mental health and bringing it out into the open. I’m fully behind this and delighted to support the current ‘Walk and Talk’ campaign organised by Winfields. You can read a selection of other articles, including this one, all on the theme of the outdoors as a way to overcome mental health issues.
I’ve blogged about this topic before, when I described how going walking and wild camping helps me escape the stresses of ‘life’ and regenerates my own wellbeing. However, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to look again at the physical and mental health benefits of walking, and getting outdoors generally. Since I’ve also been reading John Muir’s writing lately I’ve selected several well-known quotes that I think are particularly apt for this topic.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity” John Muir
Walking reduces stress
Escaping the house or the office into a natural environment is a great way to calm and clear your mind. It gives us a renewed sense of perspective and helps us relax. Studies have shown that stress levels are directly related to the amount of green space in the local area – the more green space, the less stressed a person is likely to be.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about ‘wilderness’ here: even a walk in a neighbourhood park, a trip to a local beauty spot or a walk through a wood will give the same benefits.
But there are even greater benefits when we carry out physical activity in a natural environment. Not only does exercise release stress-reducing endorphins, giving us a natural ‘high’, but freed from our usual constant focus on work, people, money and so on, there’s more head space available for internal reflection. How many times have you been on a long walk and lost track of time? You engage auto-pilot and your mind is stimulated by internal thoughts and feelings in an almost zen-like trance. I often need this.
“We are all, in some sense, mountaineers, and going to the mountains is going home” John Muir
Walking gives us a renewed perspective
John Muir famously wrote that “wilderness is a necessity“. As humans we instinctively need to re-connect with nature every once in a while, resulting at least in part from our genetic make-up and evolutionary history. In fact, our separation from nature has only been relatively recent, over the last 250 years or so. The Norwegians have a name for it: friluftsliv. This is literally translated as “free air life” (free-loofts-liv) but like hygge, its cultural connotations go far beyond any English approximation. Both words refer to uplifting ambience but while hygge focuses on cosiness and human relationships, friluftsliv captures the essence of our relationship with nature.
A classic introvert, I need time alone to re-energise myself, and walking and camping solo is a great way to let my subconscious ideas percolate. I often think I’m at odds with other folk who enjoy the outdoors as part of a group and need that social stimulation. I definitely don’t feel lonely – quite the opposite in fact! – but for me it’s about restoring my sense of ‘balance’.
There’s a big difference between solitude and loneliness and this great piece by Alastair Humphreys draws out the distinction. Loneliness is a negative state characterised by isolation, whereas solitude “is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself“. Solitude is a personal choice and not imposed on us like loneliness. “Solitude is refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves“.
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees” Henry David Thoreau
Walking increases energy
It’s often tempting to stay on the sofa when you’re feeling fatigued or down. But in fact, studies have shown that when individuals with sedentary lifestyles take part in just 20-minutes of low or moderate intensity exercise, such as walking, swimming or cycling, their energy increases by 20% and fatigue levels drop by 65% when compared to individuals undertaking no exercise at all.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” John Muir
Walking boosts creativity
Magically, the combination of nature and exercise seem to stimulate our brain in unexpected ways. How often have you been out for a walk when an idea pops into your head? Our subconscious makes connections that help us generate new and creative solutions. In fact, many companies and organisations encourage quick, walk-and-talk sessions so staff can benefit from these social and creative connections that come from conversations on foot.
On the radio just yesterday I head someone commenting that high-achievers in many areas of life such as business, sports and the arts also have wide general interests. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that their brains benefit from different types of stimulation, helping them succeed and keeping them at the top of their game.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike” John Muir
Walking keeps us physically fit
Inactivity is a key factor in the dramatic growth of obesity: 65% of Scottish adults and 29% of children are either overweight or obese.
We know that while all walking helps, walking briskly gives the greatest benefits to heart, lungs and blood pressure. We should be breathing a little faster, getting warmer and feeling our heart beating just a little faster – but still able to comfortably hold a conversation.
Spending time in the outdoors and in contact with the natural environment improves well being and helps fight stress and depression:
- We feel fitter and controlling weight helps improve body image and confidence
- Active people have a reduced risk of suffering clinical depression
- Walking in a group is a sociable activity that can help improve mental health and overcome feelings of isolation.
“Of all the paths you take in life make sure a few of them are dirt” John Muir