Nature and wellbeing series

This is the final part to the short ‘Nature and wellbeing’ series. Having viewed the research and practices of Japan and North America, we now briefly move our attention to Europe. Additionally, we will have a quick look at some ideas for immersion activities in the woods, before discussing a few wider issues implicated in the need for human contact with nature.

Research in Europe.
Based on the previous two blogs in this series, can you guess the outcome of nature and wellbeing research in Europe?

Yes – unsurprisingly a body of evidence has been gathered, mainly by Scandinavian and UK-based researchers, strongly suggesting that exposure to nature has substantial benefits to physical and mental health. Rather than going over a similar range of studies discussed in the Japanese and North American blogs, I have attached a list of scientific reading materials at the bottom of this piece reflecting European research.

Photo: Nicola Strange

Finding time outside
It is clear that it would be beneficial for all of us to regularly spend time outside in woodlands, natural spaces and even parks and gardens. This could be short daily visits or longer weekly ones. Evidence indicates that a total of two hours a week in nature results in a significant improvement in physical and mental wellbeing. It is worth examining your routines to consider how this could be achieved. For me, breakfast each morning on my back garden door step (without a phone!) gives me ten minutes of quiet contemplation of my garden plants, a few tree tops and bird-life. Luckily, everyone else in the house gets up later than I do!

For those of us who do not have the luxury of a garden, nearby green space or much free time, working this essential time outside requires more effort. Once you are there, it is worth spending time really focusing on your surroundings and immersing yourself.

Immersion activities
You may already have meditation and mindfulness activities that you do at home. These could be practiced outside to bring the additional benefits of natural surroundings.

An exercise I enjoy is to sit in the woods with my eyes shut and focus on each sense in turn. I do this for three to five breathes per sense. With each breath I try to let go of thoughts and focus fully on what I am perceiving. I end on ‘sight’ by opening my eyes and taking in the colours, shapes and movements around me. This practice helps me feel more present and alert to my surroundings.

This can be followed up by a gentle exploration around you. Just wander slowly with no plan, letting yourself be pulled by sights, smells or sounds that catch our attention. You could find yourself discovering textures: rough bark, spongy moss, cool stone. Just meander along soaking in through your senses.

Photo: Nicola Strange

Of course, your Forest Bathing could be shared with children. When mine were younger, we used to enjoy long games of hide and seek (actually ‘Mob Mob’, a slightly more advanced version!). An advantage to the adult, is you get to choose a nice, sunny spot to hide in and have a quiet sit or lie down, soaking in the atmosphere until it would be appropriate to rejoin the game!

Photo: Nicola Strange

Access for all
Accessing natural areas is not only something each of us can aim to do for ourselves, but is also a wider political issue which those of us with the power and privilege should address.

Poverty and ethnicity appear to affect people’s access to natural spaces. Populations within lower income areas of cities, at times with higher ethnic minority inhabitants, are more likely to have limited access to green spaces (see the 2019 UK government graphs below). Poverty can also clearly affect the ability to prioritise time for and afford the costs of getting to natural spaces outside of the city.

Percentage of adults who strongly agree that green spaces are ‘within easy walking distances’ (2019 Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Report
Frequency of visits to nature by ethnicity. Green: at least once a week, Brown: once or twice a month, Blue: less than once a month or never (2019 Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Report)

There are further barriers to nature for people from ethnic minorities. Biologist Danielle Belleny, an organiser of #BlackBirdersWeek, states ‘We really want our nonblack peers to understand the experience that we have as Black outdoors enthusiasts. We often feel uncomfortable in these spaces because of discrimination and [the] systemic barriers that don’t allow Black people to have this recreational release that we often need in our lives’. Even simply reposting links to events like Black Birders’ Week is supportive.

Policy-makers can prioritise strategies which enable the creation of new green spaces and the maintenance of existing ones. Health practitioners can encourage accessing nature for health benefits through green prescribing. Inroads have already been made in these respects. NHS Plymouth offers nature-based recovery programs to patients with mental health problems, while in Finland, psychologists have helped design walking trails with signposts encouraging reflective and mindful engagement.

Photo: Nicola Strange

My reading over the past few months has opened my eyes considerably. I had felt for a long time that time outdoors was beneficial, now I know it is! Exposure to nature improves our physical wellbeing beyond simple ‘exercise’ and of course our mental health also profoundly benefits.

I hope you have enjoyed these articles and especially hope you will be getting out into beautiful and nourishing natural spaces as often as you can.

Photo: Nicola Strange

Nature and wellbeing studies

Cooley SJ, Jones CR, Kurtz A, Robertson N. 2020 ‘Into the Wild’: A meta-synthesis of talking therapy in natural outdoor spaces. Clin Psychol Rev;77: 101841.

Corazon SS, Sidenius U, Poulsen DV, Gramkow MC, Stigsdotter UK. 2019 Psycho-Physiological Stress Recovery in Outdoor Nature-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review of the Past Eight Years of Research. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 16(10):1711.

Djernis, D.; Lerstrup, I.; Poulsen, D.; Stigsdotter, U.; Dahlgaard, J.; O’Toole, M. 2019 A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Nature-Based Mindfulness: Effects of Moving Mindfulness Training into an Outdoor Natural Setting. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 16, 3202.

Twohig-Bennett C, Jones A. 2018 The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res; 166:628-637.

Tyrväinen, Liisa & Ojala, Ann & Korpela, Kalevi & Lanki, Timo & Tsunetsugu, Yuko & Kagawa, Takahide. (2013). The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 38.

White, Alcock, Wheeler and Depledge 2013 Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data, Psychological Science

White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. 2019 Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730.

Other references

Leong, Dunn and Trautwein 2018 Biodiversity and socioeconomics in the city: a review of the luxury effect Biol. Lett.1420180082

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