Eugene Farrell, mental health lead at AXA Health

The mental health benefits of spending time in nature

Find your feelgood in the great outdoors!

21 October 2020

Eugene Farrell

Written by Eugene Farrell

With 30 years’ experience in the UK healthcare arena (both public and private), Eugene provides thought leadership for AXA and is our mental health lead.

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Did you know that time in nature – just two hours a week – is enough to improve our physical and mental health?1 In fact, just being amidst green space – be it in a forest, field, garden, tree lined avenue, or a plant-filled corner of your home, helps us feel calmer, and able to cope with life’s stresses.

Recognising the benefits of nature on reducing blood pressure and anxiety and increasing happiness, GPs have even been prescribing time in nature as part of their patients' treatment in parts of the UK since 2018, following a successful pilot in Shetland3

Eugene Farrell, mental health lead at AXA Health, says: “There’s plenty of science on the healing power of nature and its ability to help us feel better, especially during challenging times. Taking time out of the day to have a walk somewhere green has real mental health benefits. It helps to decrease stress, increase short term memory, cognition and even helps with creativity – in short, it calms the mind and makes us feel really good! Unplugging from daily life and getting outdoors allows us to focus on the now, on being present and mindful and that in itself does wonders for overall wellbeing.”

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NHS Forest has been promoting green spaces for good health and wellbeing for over 10 years, highlighting the restorative and therapeutic effect on the mind and body that trees and woods can have. In recent years, ‘Forest bathing’ has really taken off as a feelgood health activity. ‘Shinrin-yoku’ (forest bathing), was first developed in Japan in the 1980s after scientific studies conducted by the government found that two hours of mindful exploration in a forest could improve stress levels and increase concentration and memory. They also found that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies and can boost the immune system. As a result of this research, the Japanese government introduced shinrin-yoku as a national health programme.

Despite the name, forest bathing has nothing to do with getting in water with your speedos and everything to do with mindful time spent in your local green space, including your garden if you have one.

Being among nature and green space isn’t just great for mental health, as the physical health benefits of being active outside are also well documented, from decreased blood pressure to getting a Vitamin D boost, to improved self-esteem – with outdoor movement gaining a new term in recent years known as “green exercise”.

Green exercise is defined as physical activity in the presence of nature and is a term that was coined by the University of Essex in 2003, when a research team was set up to look at where, when, how and why green exercise brings health and well-being benefits.

With people spending, on average, 90 percent of their time indoors6, potentially undermining our physical and mental health, the green exercise movement has picked up pace in recent years with more people recognising the positive impact that being outside, whatever the activity, can have on health and wellbeing. Essentially, the combination of physical activity and time outdoors, really taking in what you see, hear and smell, really supercharges the ‘feelgood factor’ you get!

Taking a walk in nature, especially a brisk one (walking at a pace that gets your heart beating faster, but you can still hold a conversation) is a great health all-rounder. If you don’t feel motivated to walk alone why not rope in other members of your household or support bubble. Being active with others not only helps with motivation but it's also a great mood booster.

If these facts alone don’t have you reaching for the door, some of the greatest minds in history were renowned walkers, using it as a way to clear the brain, solve problems and boost creativity:

Greek philosopher, Aristotle, conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. Prolific author Charles Dickens would go for a long walk after daily periods of writing, and at night when he couldn’t sleep. Beethoven would apparently walk whatever the weather and would carry a pen and sheets of music paper in case inspiration struck. Even former President of the USA Barack Obama is known for his walking meetings, as is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

What are you waiting for? Get outside and find your feelgood!

Further reading

Health and fitness benefits of gardening - AXA Health
Mindful breathing tips - AXA Health
Health benefits of walking - AXA Health

Additional information

Walking for health - NHS

References

1 University of Exeter. "Two hours a week is key dose of nature for health and wellbeing." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 June 2019.
2 2019 Global Wellness Trends: Prescribing Nature.
3 RSPB. Nature prescribed to help health. RSPB, 5 October 2015.
4 Nature reduces rumination and sgPFC activation. Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, James J. Gross. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2015, 201510459; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
5 Peen, J, Schoevers, RA, Beekman, AT and Dekker, J (2010) The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 121, 84–93. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0447.2009.01438.x..
6 The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants, by Neil E. Klepeis and others, and published by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2001.

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