Health in Mind: Using the great outdoors to boost your wellbeing

Health in Mind: Using the great outdoors to boost your wellbeing
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South Downs Way Cuckmere Valley
South Downs Way Cuckmere Valley

Evidence suggests that our mental wellbeing can be improved simply by being outside - whether exercising, socialising or just taking in the fresh air and sunlight.

Amanda Elmes from the South Downs National Park Authority
Amanda Elmes from the South Downs National Park Authority

And with modern life becoming increasingly hectic taking the time to get outdoors is more important than ever.

In October last year 10 GP surgeries in Scotland, specifically the Shetland Islands, began handing out what they called ‘nature prescriptions’ to patients to help treat mental illness as well as stress, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions.

Patients were told to go walking on Shetland’s upland moors and directed towards coastal paths for bird watching. Although the nature prescriptions did not replace conventional medicines, they supplemented normal treatments.

For Sue Forber, from local mental health charity Solent Mind, outdoor activity was a good way to boost wellbeing. ‘There’s a lot of evidence to show that getting some exercise, even in small ways, is beneficial for our mental health,’ she said.

The South Downs Way spans Winchester to Eastbourne
The South Downs Way spans Winchester to Eastbourne

‘You don’t have to pump iron at the gym or run a marathon - even a 10 minute walk in the fresh air can lighten our moods, reduce anxiety, and increase our energy levels. This is especially true if we can get out into green spaces such as local parks, coastal areas or gardens. For me, walking surrounded by nature is definitely a healing combination.’

Nicole Cornelius, the director of workforce at QA Hospital agreed. She said: ‘I have heard that some doctors do recommend exercise and being outside to help with mental health issues.

‘At QA we know that exercise is really important. We recognise that a lot of our staff, even though they are working hard, do still spend quite a bit of time sat behind desks.

South Downs Way map Courtesy South Downs National Park Authority
South Downs Way map Courtesy South Downs National Park Authority

‘As part of our commitment to Mental Health Awareness Week and the general wellbeing of our staff we have signed up to do the Great South Run - either the 10 miles or five kilometres. About 130 staff members have signed up already.’

And where better to boost our mental wellbeing than on our doorstep?

In line with Mental Health Awareness Week the South Downs National Park Authority encouraged people to make the most of what the nearby countryside has to offer.

The national park’s learning lead Amanda Elmes explained how it was possible to enjoy the benefits of the park even on limited time. She said: ‘Many people think that a visit to the national park needs to be a day-out or involve vigorous exercise, but it could simply be an hour-long gentle walk at one of our many beauty spots.

Fiona Callingham on the South Downs Way
Fiona Callingham on the South Downs Way

‘The national park was designated for the nation for a very good reason – it’s such a special place with breathtaking landscape and wildlife.

READ MORE: Following the signs to look after your wellbeing

‘Whether it’s walking a section of the South Downs Way and soaking up the wide open views, or a family cycle ride in the woods, getting outdoors is proven to reduce stress and generally promote a feeling of happiness.

‘With 117,000 people living in the national park and more than two million people living within 10 kilometres, I would urge people to make the most of this incredible natural remedy.’

Here are Amanda’s five reasons why the South Downs is good for boosting mental health:

1. Going for a walk releases feel-good chemicals

South Downs Way Seven Sisters
South Downs Way Seven Sisters

A walk in the countryside builds up cardiovascular fitness and releases the feel-good chemical in the brain, serotonin. If walking with your dog, be sure to keep it on a lead.

2. Forest bathing reduces stress

The national park is a treasure trove of woodland, such as Alice Holt, Stansted and Friston. Forest bathing simply means immersing yourself in a forest setting. Originating in Japan and now a cornerstone of Japanese healthcare, it is a natural way to calm the senses and promote a feeling of peace in a busy world.

3. Getting closer to nature increases self-esteem

Studies point towards spending time in a greener environment as being good for increasing self-esteem, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and reducing blood pressure.

4. Natural light is essential for healthy brain function

Spending too much time indoors, away from natural light, can have a negative impact on our mental health and studies suggest it can contribute to sleep issues, poor memory and anxiety. Just 20 minutes of exposure to daylight can increase the brain’s levels of serotonin and help control our natural circadian rhythms that dictate sleep-wake cycles.

5. Breathe in the clean fresh air

Studies indicate that reduced atmospheric pollutants can help support and maintain mental health.

How I use the South Downs as an escape

WITHIN the last four years or so walking has become one of my main hobbies, writes Fiona Callingham.

It began as part of my daily routine when I travelled the world for a year - after all if you have nothing to do but travel, why not go by foot?

When I came back to England I had no intention of shaking this bug but going into full-time work it was very difficult to walk as much as I wanted, and with pressures and responsibilities in my job role ever increasing it was needed more than ever.

Thus began my obsession with what I have now learnt is known as microadventuring. Microadventures are about challenging yourself mentally and physically in a short space of time such as, in my case, a mountain climb or a long hike - perfect for a day or a weekend.

Scaling the classics like Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike became the norm as soon as Friday came around.

But sometimes getting to these places, entailing hours of driving, in the first place was the biggest hurdle.

Although we may not be close to any great mountain ranges in Hampshire we do have the majestic South Downs. And these have become like a second home on the weekends when I don’t want to go further afield.

Walking sections of the South Downs Way you encounter such a variety of landscapes, from the breathtaking coastline at Beachy Head, to open fields around Lewes, thick woodland in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park and all the quaint country villages along the way.

Whatever my worries are about home or work, a few miles along the South Downs always helps me to put things into perspective.

The South Downs Way is 100 miles in its entirety spanning Winchester to Eastbourne, which may seem daunting, but taking it piece by piece has never failed to give both my mental and physical wellbeing a boost.

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