How getting out and about this winter will benefit your health
PUBLISHED: 17:43 07 January 2020
From forest bathing to mindful rambling, the outdoors works wonders for mind and body. Time to fill up on fresh air
We're living in crazy, tempestuous times, glued to devices and submerged beneath an information overload.
No wonder then that people are seizing on the power of nature to become calmer, and more present in every day life.
There has been a rise over the last year in the popularity of forest bathing (tree-hugging isn't so daft after all it seems). Swinton Park in Masham offers courses in this Japanese practice of immersing yourself in woodland, and people are clamouring to becoming more in tune with nature. Nature therapy has been used for many years by people to find cognitive balance and it has been long known that spending time outside the house in parks and in nature is good for our health.
But it is becoming more accepted now. Research has found that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature a week are much more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who do not visit nature. Similarly, time spent outdoors has been shown to lower stress levels and blood pressure too, as well as increase focus. Trees naturally give off phytoncides which, when inhaled, have been scientifically and clinically proven to have a positive impact on the nervous system.
One advocate is Isabel Swift, the founder of Leeds-based social enterprise Lemon Balm, an organisation that uses nature and horticultural therapy to help people in need of therapy.
'We've been shouting about it for years, but it's heartening to see people notice. Health and wellbeing, and nature, are inherently linked,' she says. 'It's a system that we are part of. There is a passive, cortisol-lowering power of natural views and daylight. Plus, getting out and walking in nature allows you to move your body and be active.'
Walking in nature is of course one of the simplest activities you can do to boost wellbeing and overall health. But Swift says a lot of the positive effects of walking in nature are subconscious, offering a sense of mindfulness. 'In nature, you see something that draws your attention in so perfectly and deeply that, for the few moments that you're looking at it, you are totally absorbed,' she says. 'Our frontal cortexes that are often running wild, it turns that part off. It's about the stuff that our brain considers that we don't rationally realise.'
Each walk allows your brain to create memories and a permanent link back to how a particular place made you feel. Through getting out on lots of walks, you can create a log of incredible places outdoors that you know make you feel at your happiest, or your most calm - or perhaps your most free.
There are plenty of walking for health groups that can help you on your journey. Organisations such as The Ramblers are brilliant and a great place to start for those who want to walk regularly.
Ramblers' groups across the UK are offering a warm welcome on hundreds of free walks over the winter period. No matter where you live, and whether or not you've walked before, they offer the chance to enjoy wonderful winter landscape in good company; to relax, unwind and stress-bust, and to make new friends at a time of year when many people can feel anxious, stressed or isolated.
'A walk in the fresh air is good for the soul and it helps us to reconnect with nature at this time of year,' says Fiona Phillips. 'The festive season can leave many of us feeling anxious and stressed out, but it's also a chance to make a new start. The Ramblers are helping tens of thousands of people to start discovering the perks of walking on your health. So, if you like the sound of getting outdoors more often, why not join this incredible charity on one of their walks?'
Here in Yorkshire another person keen to tell people that you can start small and simple is Rachel Massey, an artist and wellbeing programmer, who helps places such as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park use nature to boost their wellbeing offerings to the public. She also runs her own project, Other Ways to Walk, which explores the benefits of nature connection, creativity and walking - she's a huge advocate for the positive effects of walking.
'It started out as a way of documenting my own walks and thoughts, and I made some packs of cards called Other Ways to Walk that have poetic ideas, invitations and things that you can do to help you connect with nature,' she says. 'We do organised trails and walks, as well as artworks.
'The obvious benefits of walking are the health benefits such as improving fitness, but actually, a lot of our walks are very slow and they are much more about nature connection and realising the importance of it on your mind. It's about using the senses, slowing down, noticing the details and enjoying the beauty of what's around you.' It occurs to me that it is the wildness of nature and the outdoors that works so well for us, as we live in such a constrained and rule-driven society now, that it takes us back to basics and offers a sense of escape and contrast.
Massey talks about Natural England's monitoring of our engagement with nature and their creation of a nature connection index. 'People who measure highly on this nature connection index are 1.7 times more likely to report that their lives are more worthwhile,' she says. 'The evidence is so strong now and people are much more aware of the concept of wellbeing and nature now.'