The mental health benefits of spending time in nature

Whether it’s in a forest, field, garden, tree lined avenue, or plant-filled corner of your home, spending just two hours a week with nature is enough improve our mental and physical health.

Even being amidst green space helps us feel calmer and can improve our ability to cope with daily stresses, and along with a 2018 study, has led to GPs prescribing spending time in nature as part of their treatments for reducing blood pressure and anxiety, and increasing happiness.

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.

For over ten years, NHS Forest has been promoting green spaces for good health and wellbeing, showcasing the positive effects trees and woods can have on restoring the mind and body, most often highlighted in the recent trend of ‘forest bathing’. Originally developed in 1980s Japan, ‘shinrin-yoku’ (forest bathing, albeit not literally in water) was found to improve stress levels and increase concentration and memory through two hours of mindful exploration in a forest. It was also found that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies and can boost the immune system. Following this research, the Japanese government introduced shinirn-yoku as a national health programme.

While the mental health benefits to spending time in nature are key for wellbeing, there are numerous physical health benefits as well, including decreased blood pressure and increased vitamin D. In 2003, the University of Essex coined the term ‘green exercise’ defined as physical activity in the presence of nature, following a study looking into where, when, how and why outdoor physical activity brings health and wellbeing benefits.

With people spending, on average, 90% of their time indoors, 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!

Walking in nature is a great all-round health practice. If you don’t feel motivated to walk alone why not, (in line with government guidelines), join with a few others. Walking at a brisk pace with a friend gets your heart rate up, but still allows you to hold a conversation, and is a great mood booster.

In fact, 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 Barack Obama is known for his walking meetings, as is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

So next time you’re out for a lunchtime walk, try heading over to your local park, or just to your garden if you have one, and take a moment to spend mindful time in your local green space. And why not check out our Feelgood Health hub for further inspiration on taking care of both mind and body.

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AXA Health

AXA Health is AXA’s UK health and wellbeing specialist, offering individuals and employers health insurance and health and wellbeing support services. AXA Health aims to empower its customers to be the best version of themselves.

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