The American naturalist John Burroughs once said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” More than a century later, we’re rediscovering what Burroughs already knew about the importance of the outdoors and mental health.
With all the stigmas that surround the term ‘mental health’, it’s important to emphasise that everyone has mental health. Just like the range of health for your body can fluctuate between ‘fully functioning’ and ‘running on fumes’, so can your mind.
Why We Need Mental Health Breaks
In addition to the various stresses we balance in everyday life, our mental health is also affected by stimulation. According to the mind coaches at Sanctus, humans have never been so overstimulated. We’re constantly assaulted with videos, photos, words, sounds and more that can sometimes bring your mental health down. And even if it doesn’t, just trying to keep up with it all can be exhausting, can’t it?
There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I need a break,’ because everyone needs one. Otherwise, you burn out. But just saying it out loud attracts concerned looks and raised eyebrows, because we normally let our mental health deteriorate before we’re willing to accept we need a rest.
Living in one of the busiest (not to mention most expensive!) cities in the world, I sometimes find the constant noise, adverts, crowds, stress and general bustle overwhelming. Not gonna lie, the phrase ‘I need a break from London’ passes my lips quite often. I need the absence of stimulation, the peacefulness and most importantly time and space to rebalance my mental health, and have the energy to face the challenges, big and small, that crop up in life.
Nature offers all this for free.
Benefits of Spending Time Outdoors
Even if your head doesn’t realise it, your body knows outdoors and mental health are good for each other. A good long walk can help reduce stress levels, boost your mood and help you feel more relaxed. This can consequently help our bodies feel more active, and enable us to make healthier choices in our lives.
The charity Mind states that 1 in 4 people will face mental health issues in their lifetime, but spending time outdoors can reduce depression by up to 30%. When you think about it, it’s easy to see why. The outdoors welcomes everyone, whether you’re “good” at (insert whatever sport you like here) or not. Nature doesn’t care about competition, or who looks the best out on the hills. It doesn’t care if you’ve royally screwed up.
It’s just there.
Whether you’ve hiked a mountain or wandered around a garden, the outdoors will always reward you. Whether it’s a sense of achievement or simply a boost in your mood, your body tends to follow where your mind leads.
For many though, the first obstacle to overcome is simply getting outdoors in the first place. If you’re stuck for ideas of outdoor activities that can help boost your mental health, here are a few to get you started:
Hiking is one of the most accessible activities that can improve your mental health. No matter how much time you have or where you live, you can squeeze a walk into your day. For me, I find hiking the best activity for days I feel frazzled, or need a break from modern life. Being connected 24/7 can be great in some aspects, but it can also feel draining being on virtual standby constantly. With hiking, all I need is a map and compass, and keep my phone for emergency use. Giving your brain a mini-holiday outdoors for a few hours can do wonders for giving yourself greater clarity, decreased stress levels and a unique calmness.
Whether you need time to yourself or are feeling lonely, hiking is there for you! Hikers are generally a friendly lot, and if you are worried about making friends there’s loads of meet-up groups. The charity Mountains for the Mind also has a Facebook group for hikers that need the outdoors to improve their mental health.
With hiking, the most important item to have is a decent pair of hiking boots. Check out this guide to find your perfect pair, and then start to invest in other pieces of kit.
For days when you feel down. For me, nothing else gives my blues a bigger boot out of my head than the adrenaline rush of climbing to the top of a route. Even on days when I feel as if I’m struggling, the climbing community is so friendly, fun, and focused on motivating each other to succeed that I come away feeling content, no matter how bad my climbing performance was.
There’s loads of climbing or bouldering walls in cities, and each one usually offers social sessions or newbie meet-up events. If you’re lucky enough to live close to some outdoor crags, then check online for local climbing or mountaineering clubs. These groups are usually active and have a calendar of events and newcomer introductory meetings.
Surfing is the activity I find best distracts my brain when I have anxiety, or just need a break from my thoughts. The sea requires all your concentration and effort to read the waves and catch a ride at the right moment. The best part of surfing though, is that you don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. Rather, it’s those who are the most enthusiastic that get the most enjoyment out of surfing.
Obviously living close to a beach helps, but artificial waves are appearing in more cities! All you need for surfing is a swimsuit, wetsuit and surfboard, and some accessories for those that want to brave cold water surfing. The initial cost for surfing might be pricey, but there are plenty of places to buy second hand gear from – my wetsuit is an ex-rental which I got for £50 from a surf shop in Woolacombe! Surf lessons are definitely needed to learn the ropes, plus they’re a good opportunity to meet like-minded people. After that, surfing is basically free for everyone to enjoy!
There’s something calming about gardening; perhaps it’s caring for something else or the attention needed to the tasks at hand. Either way, the outdoors doesn’t need to be extreme to be serene.
For city dwellers, having your own green space isn’t always an option. However parks and local environmental charities frequently offer volunteering opportunities, or you can grow a small collection of plants on a balcony or windowsill.
Whether it’s trails or tracks, running can help you put distance between yourself and your stress. Running gives you freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, for however long you like. It’s inexpensive and anyone can do it. Running is one of the most inclusive sports you can try.
The biggest costs for getting into running is a decent pair of running shoes, and a good sports bra. Scrimping on either can result in injuries, or achy boobs.