The benefits of the outdoors on mental health – Mental Health Awareness Week


What is mental health?

We all have mental health and it’s just as important to look after as your physical health.

When your mental health is good, you feel better able to look after yourself and engage with the things you care about.

When your mental health is struggling, you can feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, which can make it difficult to manage in your day-to-day life.

How can nature help?

The environments we live in shape our daily routines and our wellbeing, yet modern life sees many of us spending more time typing on laptops, sitting in offices or scrolling through phones, rather than being present and enjoying the world around us.

Living in a greener environment can promote and protect good health, aid recovery from illness and help manage poor health. Greener environments are also associated with better mental health and wellbeing, help to reduce levels of anxiety and depression, increase energy, and enhance quality of life.

Studies show you need to spend a minimum of two hours per week enjoying nature to fully feel its powerful effects. Don’t worry if this doesn’t sound manageable, it can be divided into smaller chunks. In fact, just 18 minutes per day would help you achieve your weekly quota.

Just in case you needed any more persuasion to get outside, here are four amazing benefits of the great outdoors:

Anxiety and stress are some of the most common mental health problems you can face. A recent study showed that spending time in nature can lead to a range of positive stress-related benefits. The calming effects of exercise offer respite from our everyday worries by helping to lower your blood pressure and reducing the production of stress hormones. Most of us will feel a reduction of worry within 5-15 minutes of starting exercise, and it’s sustained for 2-4 hours after finishing.

2/ Boosts feelings of happiness
It’s well known that even in small amounts, physical activity can have a positive effect on your overall health and wellbeing. Research has suggested that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in improving symptoms of mild depression. This is because exercise increases the production of your brain’s ‘happy hormones,’ also known as endorphins, helping to improve mood and energy.

3/ Promotes good sleep quality
Being outdoors can help to improve sleep quality by calming your mind and allowing you to decompress. Going for a walk, especially during the afternoon or early evening, can help you relax and improve the quality of your sleep, particularly the most refreshing REM sleep.

4/ Boosts Vitamin D levels
When you spend time outdoors your body is exposed to the sun’s UV light, providing your body with the energy it needs to produce Vitamin D. Research shows that increased levels of Vitamin D can reduce depression, support immunity and help with weight loss.

5/ Improve your concentration and focus
You may feel like you are constantly being bombarded with information. These demands on your attention can lead to you feeling like it is increasingly difficult to focus. Research has shown that looking at nature improves our ability to restore concentration, so that we can focus for longer.

How to connect with nature

Sunshine, warmer weather and longer evenings all mean we can spend more time outdoors and there is much to explore.

Walks in the countryside or your local park can allow you to see a variety of environments and get a good dose of nature.

Multiple studies demonstrate that visiting and noticing nature helps to support wellbeing. This just goes to show how crucial a connection with nature is when it comes to unlocking mental health benefits.

There are many ways that we can develop our connectedness with nature. Activities that involve the senses can help to develop our connection with the natural world.

Try this today: Next time you spend time outdoors try to use your different senses to connect with the world around you.

Listen to the birdsong. How many different calls can you hear?

Smell the freshly cut grass or the different flowers around you. Is there one that is particularly stronger than another?

Touch the bark of the trees or feel the soil between your fingers. When you are gardening or out for a walk feel the natural world around you.

Notice the variety of colours you can see. What is the predominant colour?

Taste locally grown fruits. From blackberries in hedgerows, to pick your own at farms, to growing your own strawberries on your windowsill, tasting the outdoors can be ever so rewarding. Look around and enjoy the sweet and satisfying taste of nature.

Reflecting on your experience once you’re back inside can help to extend this feeling of connection and further improve your mood.

How to bring the outdoors in

Daily life can often make it difficult to get outside – you might be busy or simply not live close to any green areas. But don’t worry, there are lots of simple ways you can bring the outdoors in and reap nature’s positive benefits.

Here are three creative ways you can bring the outdoors, indoors:

1/ Grow, grow, grow
There are lots of different herbs, plants and vegetables that can be grown on a windowsill, shelf, or balcony so you don’t even need a garden to grow. You could try mint, chives, cress, tomatoes or even chilli peppers. Growing something for yourself can bring a great sense of achievement too. You could also try re-growing vegetable scraps such as spring onions and celery, by placing their root bases in water and planting them in soil.

2/ Connect creatively
If planting isn’t your thing, you can also connect with nature through stories, art and sound recordings. Watching films or TV programmes about nature is a great way to connect and reflect with it. Not that you need any excuse to watch Sir David Attenborough.

3/ Update your screensavers
Whilst this might seem a bit strange, try changing your screensaver to a picture of your favourite place in our natural world. Studies have shown that just looking at a picture of nature can help to reduce your stress levels, so if you use your computer a lot, this can give you a simple daily boost.

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