Forget hi-tech fitness trackers, jumping on the next inaccessible wellness trend, or NutriBulleting the contents of your fridge, the key to ultimate wellbeing could be as simple as stepping outside
Nowadays, self-care is big business. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellbeing industry was worth an estimated £3.4 trillion in 2018 – and it will have only grown since then. But do we really need all the latest ‘must-buys’ in order to feel better in ourselves? Could, in fact, the answer to a healthier and happier life be simply lying outside our front door?
Experts such as Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant, certainly think so. For Lee, nature is an essential part of human wellbeing, and something that can support us in numerous ways. “Staying in-touch with the great outdoors improves our wellbeing, both physiologically and psychologically, and the benefits are well-researched,” he explains.
This is not necessarily groundbreaking news – and it’s something we’re probably all well aware of – but do we really appreciate all that nature can do for us?
“Ecotherapy has shown to be an effective treatment for some people living with mild to moderate depression, and when surveyed people report higher mood levels, more motivation and vigour, after exposure to nature,” Lee says of its happiness-boosting effects. “There is evidence to suggest that walking in nature promotes higher concentration, higher performance, and increased creativity, and the University of Kansas even found that it can increase our ability to solve problems, too.”
And that’s not all. “There is a raft of other benefits, such as sunlight, and its effect on our serotonin, circadian rhythms, and vitamin D production,” Lee adds. “Outdoor activity gets our blood flowing, improves our cardiovascular system, and helps us benefit from the neurological processes of exercising. On another note, it awakens our senses, and fills us with the clarity that we need in the busy modern world. We often feel more grateful when we are in the full sensory experience of nature, and we connect with the idea of being part of something much larger when we stand beside a great oak.”
It certainly seems that recent events have made a number of us reassess our relationship with nature – perhaps thanks to the sense of gratitude Lee mentions. When lockdown was at its strictest and we only had one opportunity to get outside to exercise each day, being in the fresh air felt like a welcome relief – and not something to take for granted. Suddenly many of us were awakened once again to the wonder of the outdoors, and the importance of our countryside.
Whether these feelings will last or not is another question, but either way this can be seen as a welcome move away from previous attitudes.
The past few years have seen stark warnings from experts about the disastrous impact that nature deficit disorder (a feeling of being alienated from the great outdoors) could be having on our behavior and overall wellbeing. And, with data suggesting that the average Brit spends up to 90% of their time indoors, it’s little wonder we can sometimes feel disconnected from what’s outside our four walls.
As Lee explains, a lot of us have been guilty of ignoring the beauty of the world around us. “It’s a complex issue that is especially prevalent for our younger generation,” he says. “The benefits of nature are, generally speaking, not valued in western culture. And as most of the technology devices we have today are designed to keep us using them through exploiting our psychological hooks, many of us are spending more time in urban and indoor environments than ever before. We also have the speed of life, which generally means many people put getting outside to the back of their queue of things to do.”
Outdoor activity awakens our senses, and fills us with the clarity that we need in the busy modern world
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be difficult to enjoy the green environment around us. Whether it’s a quick walk through a local park, stepping on to the grass barefoot, or even feeling droplets of rain fall on our face, getting out in the fresh air can give us the boost we need. And the best news? Recent research shows that we need less than 20 minutes a day to reap the benefits. Try these great nature-inspired activities and breathe in the goodness of the world around you.
How often do you look up? Many of us spend our days walking with our heads down, or having our eyes focused on our phones, but observing the sky – both in the day or at night – can bring plenty of enjoyment. A recent study by Coventry University found that stargazing helps promote various aspects of wellbeing through the idea of fascination, and other work, conducted by the University of California, Irvine, has revealed that a sense of awe – something often associated with sky and stargazing – can make us more selfless and considerate of others. Have fun cloud watching, or stand outside on a clear night and see what constellations you can spot.
Immerse yourself in forest bathing
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (literally translated as forest bath) has gained much traction in recent years. Developed in the 1980s, it was incorporated into the Japanese government’s health programme soon after, as countless pieces of research highlighted its benefits. It involves using all your senses to connect with the space around you while walking through a forest or wood. Supporters of the practice believe it can help guard against certain conditions, as well as reduce anxiety and stress, and boost the immune system. Walk slowly and aimlessly in a tree-studded area to enjoy the benefits, and savour the sounds, smells, and sights around you.
Dive into a wild swim
Like to dip your toes in the water? Wild swimming has been growing in popularity as people enjoy the invigorating sense of freedom it brings. Swimming is known to be great for your mental and physical health – throw in a beautiful setting and the benefits grow further. There have been numerous studies that show immersing yourself in cold water can boost your happy hormones, reduce your levels of stress hormones, and even help lower inflammation in the body. Discover a new side to your local rivers and lakes by donning a wetsuit and jumping in.
Also known as earthing, this practice simply involves standing barefoot or touching the natural environment around us. Gwyneth Paltrow, and followers of her website, ‘goop’, are among the proponents of it, and although the idea that it allows you to benefit from the earth’s electric charge may sound a little wacky, research does indicate its benefits. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health suggests that earthing can help reduce stress, aid sleep, lower inflammation, and more. Step out on the grass with no shoes on, sink your hands into the soil, or run your fingers up and down an old tree trunk.
Spot the birdie
Think bird watching is just for the older generation? Think again. Identifying birds in your garden, watching them in flight, or while building a nest, is calming and restorative – and certainly not reserved solely for the retired. In fact, #birdwatching has a massive 4.7 million posts on Instagram, and there’s an increasing number of apps dedicated to helping twitchers of all ages track what they see. Research by the University of Surrey has even found that listening to birdsong could be better at relaxing us than using an app to meditate. Time to dig out the binoculars?
Lee Chambers is an environmental psychologist, life coach, and wellbeing consultant, whose work aims to help people reach their full potential.
For more uplifting content, including the power of self-hypnosis and tips to help you develop a strong sense of identity, pick up the August issue of Happiful in our shop now, or in supermarkets from Thursday 16 July, or subscribe to read for free online.
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Artwork | Charlotte Reynell