The positive and restorative powers that the great outdoors can have on physical and mental health are well known, and as the West Country weather finally takes a turn for the better, it is a perfect time to venture outside, get back to nature and embrace the multitude of benefits it brings.
For most adults in today’s world, the demands on their time, plus often sedentary jobs, and rise in use of technology in all facets of life, has combined to increase feelings of pressure, exhaustion and feeling ‘wired’, while decreasing the time spent outdoors, getting active, or being able to ‘switch off’.
Research from Devon-based family destination, River Dart Country Park, reveals the extent of the problem, with almost half (48%) of adults responding to a recent poll having an office job and many (42%) with hobbies that they can do at home, or that don’t involve being active. However, the research also painted a picture of families that strive to get outdoors as much as possible in their spare time (48%). And it found that most (54%) adults spend at least an hour outside a day, and a third (33%) spend several hours outside.
The physical advantages of striding out into the great outdoors are clear; it puts the human body to work. Muscles awaken, fresh air is inhaled, your heart rate speeds up and energy is burned. Not only is that great news for weight control, but it can also help ward off – or help to manage – a host of diseases and conditions. Blessed as we are in the South West, with an abundance of moorland, open countryside, coastal paths and beaches; this is nature’s playground, offering endless opportunities to utilise and explore, boosting your physical health in the process.
There are also significant benefits that getting outdoors can have on mental health. As Stress Awareness Month draws to a close in April, there is increasing evidence that time spent outdoors has an undeniably positive effect. Recently, medical research found that just one exposure to nature – be that a family walk, a picnic by the river, or watching wildlife – prompts a sense of happiness and good spirits that lasts for seven hours afterwards. It was also proven that those prone to anxiety or depression benefit more than anyone from venturing outdoors.
Wellbeing is another aspect of mental health and one that is becoming more widely spoken about and encouraged. Just stepping from the daily treadmill of life and responsibilities, to appreciate nature, or relax on a walk, or engross yourself in an open-air pursuit, can help you unwind. The influx of vitamin D from sunlight, serotonin boost from exercise, and a dose of dopamine – another ‘happy hormone’ – from a sense of achievement, are all great for improved wellbeing.
Being outside also offers a chance to push normal distractions and demands on your time to one side… and to reduce or abandon technology for a while. Mindfulness is the practice of paying more attention to the present moment, to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you. In the countryside, surrounded by the incredible sights of nature, there is no better setting to focus on your surroundings and slow down. Academic research has also found practising mindfulness reduces fatigue and improves sleep quality, which is a bonus.
The team at River Dart Country Park has suggested a number of tips for embracing the great outdoors for your physical, mental and emotional benefit:
Meditate and be mindful: take the chance to slow down and soak in your surroundings. Concentrate on breathing in fresh air and concentrating on the here and now. Push all other thoughts and concerns to the side. Concentrate on all your senses; from the sound of birdsong, or smell of sea salt, to the feeling of the sun on your skin. Do your best to be fully ‘present’ and calm – it can take practice!
Exercise outdoors: whether it’s an early morning jog around the park, or a dog walk after work, try to use the countryside on your doorstep as a great – and free – alternative to the gym. From cycling or horse riding, to wild swimming or kayaking, the West Country has no shortage of places to exercise in the great outdoors – and the best bit is that it caters to all ages, abilities and interests.
Nature and wildlife: interacting with nature can be incredibly rewarding. There are few better places to indulge than our local landscape. Whether you’re a budding ‘twitcher’ keen to do some birdwatching, or a family with young ones hunting for minibeasts, there is so much to see and investigate. Also, as region of keen pet owners, use furry friends as a good excuse to get outside more.
New hobbies: it is never too soon, nor ever too late to try a new outdoor activity. There are relatively new activities, such as stand-up paddle boarding, that offer a chance to get on the water, get fit and have fun. Or try one of a host of family friendly activities, such as adrenaline-rushes like high-rope courses at tree-top level or flying through the air on a zip wire. More sedate options, like geocaching or silent disco yoga, are also great if you fancy trying something new in the open air.
Daily Mile: schools in the region are tasked at working 15 minutes of exercise – otherwise known as a ‘Daily Mile’ – into children’s everyday school life. It’s a great discipline for adults too, especially those tied to a desk for work. Walking further to work or using lunch breaks as a chance to clear your head and walk around the block, is a simple way to work a few more steps into your day, while dragging you out into the sunlight to reap the benefits that we know the great outdoors can bring.