Like many people, I really felt the pinch of the third lockdown earlier this year. What I found most challenging was the lack of somewhere beautiful to walk each day.
I live in a small village in Wales, which is essentially a strip of houses along a fast road. There is no pavement for much of that stretch, and cars come through at quite a speed making it unsafe to walk. So I was pretty much limited to pacing up and down a few hundred metres of grey tarmac. Even I was surprised by the toll this took on my mental wellbeing.
For me, walking in nature is a go-to wellbeing activity. When it was restricted, I began to feel like a different person. And not a good one. But that isn’t surprising given the numerous ways walking outdoors impacts our mental health.
I moved back to Wales in the middle of 2020, and since arriving here mid-pandemic I hadn’t had the chance to properly explore before lockdown hit. As someone who suffers with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), spending time outdoors in natural light is really important for me, and when I’m surrounded by nature I feel my mood lift immediately. It’s so important to understand just what an impact the most basic physical factors can have on our wellbeing. Factors like daylight, fresh air, and movement. Even when we have emotional stuff to contend with, we shouldn’t underestimate what an effect these practicalities can have.
Aside from the fact that it’s free and you don’t need to sell a kidney or remortgage to afford any insane monthly fees, here are just a few ways exercising in nature can improve our health:
It boosts our immune system
Green areas that are densely populated with trees, emit higher levels of oxygen along with chemicals called phytoncides—natural compounds which defend a plant against threats like fungus and bacteria. Exposure to phytoncides boosts our immune system by stimulating cell activity and increasing anti-cancer proteins. Pine trees and evergreen forests have particularly high levels of phytoncides, so forests or woodlands are great for tapping into these health benefits.
It reduces stress
As well as improving our immune system, walking among trees also reduces stress and cortisol levels. Cortisol is a steroid hormone with several functions in the body, an important one of which is helping us to respond quickly to danger. This fight-or-flight mechanism is vital in moments where we need to, say, flee a lion attack. But there aren’t many rogue lions around these parts. Unfortunately our brains cannot tell the difference between stress caused by real physical danger and general life stress such as work, arguments, everyday worries, or even watching a scary movie. When our brain detects stress, it signals our body to release higher levels of cortisol. But we don’t burn that cortisol off by running away or fighting an attacker, so it remains circulating in our blood. Prolonged high levels of cortisol can lead to a host of symptoms such as irritability, high blood pressure, and weight gain around the tummy area, to name a few. So a walk in the woods might be just what the doctor ordered to help soothe periods of worry and limit the unwanted side effects of those pesky excess stress hormones.
It lowers blood pressure
Research by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a Japanese scholar specialising in forest medicine, found that ‘forest bathing’ (a relaxation practice that involves being still and quiet amongst trees) lowers blood pressure and heart rate. His study showed a 2% decrease in blood pressure, along with a 6% decrease in heart rate, in volunteers monitored in a forest compared to in an urban setting. Lowering high blood pressure has numerous benefits from reducing the risk of stroke and heart-disease, to protecting our kidneys, and extending life-span.
It is more restorative than the gym
We all know that physical exercise is good for us. Walking stimulates blood flow to the brain and heart, works our muscles, and improves our general fitness levels. But walking in nature has added benefits over working out indoors. Exercising outside in a green space has been found to be more restorative and calming than being in a gym or walking in a built-up area. Aside from the above chemical perks, studies have proven that having a view of nature can even shorten the recovery time of hospital patients.
It promotes mindfulness
Modern life can be hectic and demanding. Even when we finish work and tasks for the day, oftentimes we unwind by spending time using digital devices such as TVs or smartphones that bathe us in artificial light and a mental stimulation of sorts. While we may enjoy the experience, it doesn’t actually allow our brains a chance to rest. Walking in nature is a form of mindfulness that gives the cognitive part of our brain a break. Even a short mental rest can allow us to refocus, re-energise, and become more patient with others.
So whether you are looking for some good old-fashioned fresh air and exercise, or just need twenty minutes peace and quiet, a walk in nature is an excellent option to boost your mood and reap a ton of health benefits. No matter what life stresses you have on your plate, don’t underestimate the basics when it comes to wellbeing!