So we all know getting out of the house, and ideally into wide, green or blue natural space can feel good. Cleansing for the soul perhaps. This is because as humans - part of nature ourselves - we are hard wired to crave the connection with the environment. Maybe, if we are lucky enough to live near parks, woodland, or coast, one of the few positives of lockdown life has been a new-found appreciation for getting out into nature.
But how much real difference does it make (beyond the obvious of keeping the kids from driving you and themselves loopy)? A lot, according to the Japanese. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku – literally, to ‘forest bath’ – has for some time been part of the country’s health programme. Spending time in the great outdoors is believed to have the power to counter illnesses including cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, as well as mental health issues such depression, anxiety and stress. Studies since the 1980s have suggested the benefits; it is thought to lower blood pressure, aid sleep, and also a chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, is believed to actually boost the immune system.
There is more recent UK research in support of a push to see time outside ‘socially prescribed’ by doctors here. Natural England last year found it had a profound impact on mental health and our sense of satisfaction in life, regardless of where we live, our age, wealth and other factors. Specifically, it is a two-hour “dose” of nature a week that significantly boosts health and wellbeing, even if you simply just sit down somewhere to enjoy it. So, a note to both avid and reluctant runners or hikers out there – it does not have to involve physical activity to be beneficial!
Another proviso - the same benefits do not necessary apply to time in the garden. The reason being is that for many (and my hand is up here) their garden can represent more of a chore than an opportunity to relax. This suggests that weeding the patio, pinching out your tomatoes or sinking a few early evening G&Ts on the decking – rewarding though they can all be in other ways - might not tick exactly the same self-care box. Instead there is something about getting out into the wider world, away from anything that can remind us of tasks and to-dos, to feel part of something much bigger. This is where we really see the benefits to health and psychological well-being.
So in summary, green or blue space (blue being coastal, riverside or canals etc) can really make all the difference, and the sense of escape seems to be the essential element.
Its perhaps also worth considering that the more high-tech our life becomes, the more nature we may need or benefit from. So if you know the day ahead is at a desk, packed with wall to wall conference calls and zoom meetings, give yourself a break and book yourself a date with nature as well.
The two hours doesn’t need to be one outing so it might be much easier, and feel more achievable, to break it up. Before going to bed consider your schedule the next day and think about when a walk – even a short one – might happen. Book it in and protect the time. Perhaps vary the time on different days – sometimes early morning, other days early evening – in order to notice and appreciate the differences in the environment.
If you run several times a week, you could try swapping out one run for a walk in order to slow down, give yourself recovery time, and appreciate the rich sights, sounds, and smells.
The mental health charity Mind recommends making getting out a family activity, not just for walks and bike rides (which are fab and free!) but to learn and find edible plants and forage. Wild garlic, blackberries - all sorts of things can be found with a bit of (careful!) research. Places like the Woodland Trust has more info on foraging.
Finally, even if it’s not possible to find a full two hours this week (or even the next and the one after) like with all of this stuff, it’s a step in the right direction. And some, in almost every case, is better than none!