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Get back to nature

New research suggests that a dose of the great outdoors can be more effective than anti-depressants.
Could a Health + Wellness hack be right on your doorstep? Danielle Fox reports.

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Photo by Chris Abney

You pop a probiotic every morning for gut health, sip a Turmeric latte to ease inflammation and diligently take magnesium at night to ease fatigued muscles, but are you getting enough Vitamin N? New research suggests that Nature is key to profound mind-body changes but chances are, like many, you’re deficient in the great outdoors. According to statistics from The Centre For Urban Design and Mental Health, depression and anxiety rates are 40% and 20% higher in cities, respectively. And, with urban areas expected to house two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050 (according to the UN) could running for the hills, quite literally, be the solution to better mental health?

Ecotherapy, as in connecting to nature to aid wellbeing, isn’t a new idea. ‘Green Prescriptions’ (a health professional’s written advice to a patient to be physically active, such as going for a walk or a jog to reconnect with the outdoors a certain amount of times a week) have long been the norm in New Zealand and Australia, where this form of therapy has been nationalised since 1998. It also happens to be around the same time Japanese ‘forest bathing’ became recognised globally (taking leisurely walks in the forest, see more below) and the Norwegian expression ‘friluftsliv’ was first coined – meaning “open-air living”. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that these countries top the rankings as the world’s happiest places to live.

However, until recently, strong scientific data which backed up the anecdotal evidence to support nature as a positive influence on our mental health was sparse. Now, mounting research suggests there are considerable health benefits to being immersed in natural green spaces. A new Stanford-led study showed that those who walked in a natural area for 90 minutes showed less activity in the region of the brain associated with depression than those who walked through a city or other urban area for the same amount of time. Another US study found that hospital patients with tree views from their windows were discharged a day earlier than those with rooms that faced walls. And, when an extra ten trees on a Toronto city block were planted in 2015, it provided health benefits to residents equivalent to a $10,000 increase in annual income, or being seven years younger. So, from lowering levels of depression, anxiety and blood pressure, to lessening stress and improving the immune system, here’s how to embrace the outdoors and reap the benefits….

Take a walk in the woods

Photo by Henry Desro

In 1982, Japan declared shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” (immersing oneself in the forest atmosphere) a part of its national health programme and a medically-sanctioned method of unplugging from busy, stressful lives. The aim was to reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible; think mindfulness-meets-nature. Since then, it’s become common practice at spas in Japan and, increasingly, at retreats around the world. It is, in a way, mobile meditation; with a guide, or on your own, you walk slowly through the woods, tuning into multiple senses, feeling the shifting terrain under foot and noticing the sounds and smell of the environment. And, while it is not strenuous like a hike, the end result should be a lower heart rate and a general feeling of peace and tranquillity. Another bonus: There is a clear connection between staying active outside and toning up faster. “Exercising outdoors can burn more calories than the same workout indoors – just think about the same walk you do on a treadmill in a gym to then walking on uneven terrain coupled with wind resistance and temperature differences, it simply challenges you more,” says Alan Mikesly, Director of Human Performance at Indiana University. Find Shinrin-Yoku Walks near you at shinrin-yoku.org.

Swim in the open water

Photo by Elizabeth Lies

“Swimming is about feeling alive – whatever fear is in my head, as soon as I am in the water, it has gone, slam-splash-dunked.”

In his book Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands (Random House), author Andrew Fusek Peters describes how wild swimming saved him from crippling depression. “Swimming is about feeling alive – whatever fear is in my head, as soon as I am in the water, it has gone, slam-splash-dunked,” he says. Not only does wild swimming come with a natural endorphins high but the cold water immersion has been shown to trigger certain responses in the body and brain. A study by NASA showed that over a 12 week period repeated cold swimming encouraged ‘cold adaption’, which lowered blood pressure and cholesterol, and increased fertility. It’s also no coincidence that hydrotherapy (the use of water for treatment) has been used as a cure for ailments for centuries, from pain relief (it works wonders on inflammation) and increasing motion to strengthening muscles and improving circulation. But where to begin? The best global destinations for wild swimming could be your nearest river, lake, canal or ocean, but swimtrek.com is a great starting point. Choose from an array of global destinations and the type of swim you want to do, such as day trips, expeditions to races and escapes. Experts also recommend wearing a swimming cap, particularly if it is cold, as loss of heat comes first from the head. Remember to never swim alone, always ensure you swim with someone else for safety, even if they opt to remain on dry land.

Interact with animals

Photo by Cynthia del Rio

The positive effects of human and animal interactions are, of course, well known (US airlines introduced Emotional Support Therapy Animals to soothe fractious and nervous flyers in the late 80s). And now, countries including the USA, UK and The Netherlands are using the same concept to help with depression and anxiety on a larger scale. ‘Care or Therapeutic’ farms are working, state-funded farms that encourage volunteers (both adults and children) to look after the animals and help with the day-to-day running of the farm. From rearing livestock and gardening to therapeutic work with horses and farm management, the aim is to learn new skills, focusing on activities with positive and tangible outcomes which, in turn, improves mental and physical health. And it’s proving to be game changing: “For too long, people have been prescribed medication”, says Dutch Farmer Doeke Dobma and founder of Clinks Care Farm, “but there is another route. When people are engaged and have a connection with nature, often something magical happens.” A recent UK public health study concluded that Therapeutic Farms significantly reduced feelings of anxiety, fear and depression. Discover more on care and therapeutic farms at carefarminguk.org.

Words: Danielle Fox

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