One in four people have experienced a mental health problem in the UK. With the coronavirus pandemic restricting our work, travel, socialising and access to the outdoors, more people are struggling with their mental health and numbers seeking help are rising rapidly. Unfortunately the reality for many is that NHS waiting lists for talking therapies and other treatments are often lengthy. For some people medication can help, but for others it doesn’t and some people choose not to try it. Thankfully there is an amazing therapy on our doorstep that we can access immediately, has proven results, and we can do during lockdown…. outdoor exercise!
Evidence shows that exercise can be as effective as medication for mild and moderate depression and anxiety, and that it is also beneficial in the management of other mental health problems. Regular exercise also appears to have more long-term benefits when compared to medication for depression and anxiety, by reducing risk of developing similar issues in the future. This data trialed five sessions of thirty minutes of exercise each week. Importantly the exercise should be regular, enjoyable and provide a sense of accomplishment with the goal of making it a habit. This doesn’t specifically mean the exercise must be outdoors, but I believe there are added benefits of exercising outdoors that make the potential for treatment even greater:
- Exposure to nature can boost mood for 7 hours.
- Natural light in the mornings helps improve sleep quality at night and helps stabilise a sleep cycle (it doesn’t need to be full sunshine, even a cloudy day provides natural light).
- Sunlight exposure increased vitamin D levels – something many people in the UK are deficient in.
- Spending time outdoors reduces risk of depression by 30%.
- Getting outside is free! ..or very low cost, so cost isn’t a barrier for making it a regular habit.
I am a firm believer that outdoor exercise and getting into the mountains in particular, can have incredible effects on mental wellbeing and it’s not just about treating mental illness, it’s about preventing it too…
I came to live in a rural village in North Wales to be able to get into the hills straight from my front door every day and have the mountains and coast only a few minutes drive away. For my own mental wellbeing and sense of self, getting outdoors with my dog Dylan, is a vital daily routine. There are certainly cold, wet, winter mornings when I would rather stay in bed but that’s not an option, as Dylan needs his morning walk or run. Once we’re out in the wilds of winter it feels like we’re on an adventure together and I can’t help but feel energised, positive and grateful to be outside. I arrive home with more confidence and feel like I’ve already accomplished something with my day. Time outdoors in nature has the fantastic ability to make me feel revitalised whilst bringing a sense of calm and presence that I don’t find anywhere else.
I’ve been very fortunate during the lock down to have access to beautiful outdoor spaces from home and because I’ve been able to share this with my boyfriend, Tom. However, I have missed being able to get up into the high mountains to walk, scramble and climb. Mostly, I’ve missed swimming in the lakes, rivers and sea; nothing beats cold water on my skin and the sense of escaping to a completely different world underwater. On the other hand, I’ve done more cycling in the last two months than I’ve done for years. I’ve loved exploring more of the local area by bike, viewing the mountains from the roads below them and pushing my mind and body in a different way. I have appreciated the chance to reflect on my values and priorities and I know that a varied diet of daily outdoor activity is crucial for keeping my mental and physical health in the best condition.
Whether it’s to maintain your mental wellbeing or to improve or treat mental illness, get outside, get moving and encourage others to do the same. This could be walking round the block during lock down, in your local park, or in the hills and mountains if possible, whichever – it’s all beneficial! Hopefully it won’t be too long until we can get out there and enjoy it together!
Here are some links for further information and support:
Rethink Mental Illness: rethink.org