7 Reasons Why Getting Outside is Great for Your Mental Health
We all know that getting outside can generally make us feel better - but this is for some very specific reasons, and there is a wealth of benefits to be gained from just taking a short walk. Here are our top 7 mental health benefits of getting outside.
1. Reduce Your Stress Levels
Going for a walk is one of the best ways of reducing stress levels. Rhythmic exercise has a calming effect and the physiological effects of walking, reducing blood pressure and increasing heart rate, also help to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Walking is always beneficial, but being by water has been shown to be especially soothing, so try a walk near the sea or by a beautiful river or lake.
Why is reducing stress so important? Apart from the beneficial effect on feelings of well-being, stress has been shown to increase blood sugar and to increase the risk of heart disease. Being stressed also increases the risk of obesity, with all its associated problems.
For many of us, stress is unavoidable, so it is important to have some down-time to rebalance life and build time for a quiet reflective walk into our routines.
2. Feel Better About Yourself
Getting outdoors and exercising improves self-esteem and body image. One study asked people to exercise whilst looking at different environments, and found that looking at pleasant nature scenes improved self-esteem more than looking at urban scenes.
At all ages, people who adventure outside have been found to have higher levels of self-esteem and feel that they can cope better with the stresses of modern life. Initiatives such as forest schools and outward-bound courses can help children and adolescents to develop more confidence, and older adults to retain their independence.
3. Improve Your Concentration and Focus
In our busy lives, being bombarded by information and distracting demands for our attention means that we are finding it more difficult to focus for a long time and we become fatigued with prolonged concentration. Research has shown that looking at nature improves our ability to restore concentration so that we can focus for longer, and family time spent outdoors might help children to do better at school!
4. Improve Mood
Did you know that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in improving the symptoms of mild depression? The National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends that people with mild to moderate depression should exercise for 45-60 minutes at least three times a week. For people with more severe depression, exercising as well as taking medication and having psychological therapy can improve symptoms and general wellbeing.
5. Sleep Better
Are you having difficulty sleeping? One thing that has been shown to help is regular physical exercise. Going for a walk, especially during the afternoon or early evening, can help you relax and improve the quality of your sleep, particularly the most refreshing REM sleep.
Walking helps sleep quality by improving mood and wellbeing but also by improving the immune and hormonal systems. Notably, it has been shown to be effective in improving sleep for people who are undergoing treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer. Getting enough sleep also improves your brain function – another reason to don those walking shoes and get outdoors.
Other factors to think about include having regular sleep and waking times; avoiding a big meal, smoking or alcohol before sleep; and making sure that the environment is comfortable, not too cold or too warm, and without added stimulation such as TV or computer screens.
6. Worry Less
Worried about something? Go for a walk, run or bike ride!
The effect of exercise on worry and feeling anxious is rapid and effective. Most of us will feel a reduction in worry within 5-15 minutes of starting to exercise, and this is sustained for 2-4 hours after finishing the exercise. This has been seen in adults, children and adolescents.
People who have more severe anxiety disorders also benefit greatly from exercise in the short and long term, and for many people being outside is far more beneficial than going to a gym.
7. The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and a strong immune system, and low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with low mood and worry.
Most people can make enough Vitamin D in the UK between March and September, by getting outside and exposing arms, legs or face to sunlight for short periods. The length of time you need to feel the warmth of the sun depends on your skin type and it is important to avoid sunburn, especially between 11am and 3pm.
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