5 ways in which time outdoors can improve mental wellbeing

DISCLAIMER: Please note this is a highlight piece on greenspaces and their perceived impacts on mental wellbeing. I am not a medical doctor or healthcare professional and this is not to substitute advice or instruction from those with professional expertise (I am coming at this from an Environmental Science background). For more information on mental health and where to seek help in the UK please see this detailed list of mental health charities provided by the NHS. Should you be concerned about your mental health or the mental health of a loved one please seek advice from your GP- more info on the UK process here. MIND Infoline: 0300 123 3393; Samaritans 116 123 (correct as of 10/10/2020).

The benefits of exercising or spending time outdoors are apparent in a wide range of literature and pages on the internet, but why is being outside associated with wellbeing? A 2018 Study by the University of East Anglia highlighted that exposure to greenspace can promote reduced risks of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, but greenspaces are becoming increasingly associated with mental health benefits and advantages to our greater wellbeing.

Definitions of greenspace are thought to encompass areas of open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation, but also incorporated urban greenspaces including town/city parks and street greenery. These are thought to be health-promoting environments, an association that dates back to (and most likely before) the 1800s with the preservation, creation and accessibility of London open spaces and parks. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation Healthy City Guidelines values a healthy city as one that continually creates and improves physical and social environments. These ideals are being incorporated into modern day wellbeing values. In the 1990s Oxford GP William Bird championed the UK’s first Health Walk Scheme at his practice, which arguably paved the way for collaborations between health care providers and local nature partnerships to promote healthy communities and healthy environments.

Physical activity in a natural outdoor environment is becoming increasingly associated with mental wellbeing. For example a walk or a run in a natural environment/ greenspace is thought to convey greater mental health benefits that the same activity in a synthetic environment e.g. city street, gym, treadmill (Bowler et al, 2010). A 2013 Study suggested that people who use the natural environment for physical activity at least once per week have about half the risk of poor mental health compared with those who do not (Mitchell et al, 2013; Barton and Rogerson, 2017). Approximately 99.9% of our evolutionary history has been spent immersed in the natural environment and therefore it is likely that we are adaptive and responsive to nature (Miyazaki et al, 2011).

With this in mind in 2018 the Royal College of General Practitioners collaborated with parkrun UK to promote the health and wellbeing of staff and patients. Through this, GP practices across the UK are encouraged to link up with their local parkrun/s to become parkrun practices. I’ve seen this first hand through the team at Southport parkrun where local GP and core parkrun volunteer Simon Tobin prescribed parkrun to more than 100 patients in just 2 years, including 15 year old Ellie who has experienced the positive impacts this has had on her daily life. A 2018 study of 8,157 parkrun participants by Glasgow Caledonian University showed that 89% reported a positive impact on their happiness through participating in parkrun.

This idea of time outdoors being beneficial to mental wellbeing can otherwise be known as Ecotherapy- as defined by MIND as a type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature. This can be Green Exercise i.e. physical activity in greenspaces such as running, cycling or walking, or other activities like gardening, caring for animals etc (see the 2018 MIND report for some more inspiration). Ecotherapy and green exercise can be used to help deliver therapeutic interventions as part of preventative mental health intervention, or on a more personal level you might simply find that being outdoors offers you some headspace and improves your mood. However, a crucial element of this can be accessibility to greenspace which evidently is not equal and determined by socio-economic underliers.

So what does this all mean? Here are 5 ways in which time outdoors can help improve mental wellbeing (based on a review of some scientific literature):

REDUCES STRESS/ ANXIETY

Time spent outdoors has been associated with reduced blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Your adrenal glands make and release the hormone Cortisol into your bloodstream as a response to stress. This gives us our fight or flight instinct and whilst in many situations Cortisol is beneficial, we can often find ourselves in high stress mode beyond ‘normal’ bounds. Continuous high levels of Cortisol can impact blood pressure, recovery from exercise, anxiety, depression, libido, sleep and more. The American Institute of Stress has shown that spending time outdoors can help alleviate (but not completely eradicate) these feelings of stress. A 2011 study of Forest Bathing in Japan (where people spend time sitting, lying or walking through a forest) showed a 12.4% and 7.0% decrease in Cortisol Levels and sympathetic nervous activity respectively (sympathetic nervous activity is the body’s involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations). This combined with a 55% increase in parasympathetic nerve activity (the body’s rest and digestion response) indicated a more relaxed state for those enjoying time in the forest compared to the urban control group (Miyazaki et al, 2011). Similarly, a 2018 Study by the University of East Anglia found that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary Cortisol, further demonstrating the potential for time outdoors to help reduce stress.

IMPROVES YOUR MOOD AND SELF ESTEEM

Being outdoors is beneficial for individuals’ emotions and ability to reflect on life problems (Barton and Rogerson, 2017). Research highlights that a 90 minute walk in nature can help lower activity in the brain linked to negative thoughts. A 2015 study found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour. This offered the chance to reduce continuous negative thoughts (although I note not eradicate them). Nature can be a welcome distraction, provide us with a sense of awe (think about the times the scenery has taken your breath away), help us to see the bigger picture, restore better short term memory function and provide us with quiet spaces to reflect or escape. Furthermore, being outside can promote the release of ‘happy’ chemicals like Serotonin and Endorphins (American Institute of Stress).

But you don’t need to spend excessive amounts of time outdoors to benefit from increased mood, just five minutes of exercise outdoors is thought to help boost your self esteem and improve your mood. Bowler’s 2018 study of self reported emotion after spending time in greenspace found that respondents expressed beneficial changes in feelings of energy, anxiety, anger, fatigue and sadness. Thomson et al (2011) also found improvements in social networking, feelings of connectivity, increased appreciation of nature, improvement in self esteem and escape from modern life. Based on this, it is no surprise that time outdoors can be used in a targeted way to deliver structured therapeutic interventions and upstream preventative intervention (Barton and Rogerson, 2017).

HELPS PREVENT BURNOUT

Physical activity in a natural outdoor environment has also been linked to reduced fatigue, increased energy and greater satisfaction (Bowler et al, 2010). The idea that nature can be mentally restorative is captured by Kaplan and Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (abbreviated to ART), which suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, or looking at nature. It is thought that nature offers a soft fascination whereby looking at/ experiencing trees, greenery, clouds, water helps gently occupy your brain, aiding restorative feelings, as opposed to hard fascinations like TV (Basu et al, 2018). Being outdoors can act as restorative escapism, alleviating you of everyday life/worries and allowing you to break free from routine. The mental refresher time spent in greenspaces can help prevent burnout.

INCREASES VITAMIN D AND HELPS ALLEVIATE SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

Being outdoors exposes us to doses of natural light which is beneficial for our physical and mental health. Exposure to sunlight can promote the production of Vitamin D in the skin, which is essential for the growth and development of strong bones. Perhaps less well known are the linkages between Vitamin D and mental health, whereby inadequate levels can be linked to worsening mental health conditions and low mood (NHS, 2013). In the UK vitamin D production via sunlight usually occurs on sunny days between April and October 11am-3pm. Vitamin D can also be obtained through diet (especially oily fish) and supplements.

Furthermore, exposure to natural light in winter can help combat the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (otherwise known as SAD or ‘winter depression’).  It is thought that a lack of sunlight might inhibit the usual functioning of a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus which may affect production of melatonin, production of serotonin and your circadian rhythm (body clock). Getting out and about in daylight during winter is thought to help alleviate SAD (NHS, 2018).

CAN HELP AID BETTER SLEEP

Have you ever found you’ve slept better after a day outside? You’re not imagining it, there are in fact linkages between ‘fresh air’ and sleep. Being outdoors offers greater oxygen exposure, rather than recycled indoor air and more oxygen results in an increase in serotonin, which makes you feel calm, happy and relaxed. Getting more sunlight can also help your circadian rhythms which ultimately impacts sleep.  

All information provided is to the best of my knowledge and found through research on the topic from an environmental science perspective. Please see the disclaimer for the numbers for MIND and Samaritans.

As the nights get darker safety is an issue to be considered when spending time outdoors- you can read some of my safety tips for winter running here.


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