Can spending time outdoors prevent depression?

    21 August 2019

    The tree-huggers are onto something. Recent research has found that spending time outdoors, in nature, can drastically lower the risk of depression, reduce stress and improve overall health. Of course, Hippocrates knew this when he prescribed a walk as a general panacea. Of course, the Japanese have long utilized Shinrin Yoku – or ‘forest bathing’ – as part of a holistic lifestyle. Hearing birdsong, feeling grass underfoot, smelling flowers – it’s not rocket science to suggest that these things can make us feel calmer. But as life has become more urbanized and fast-paced, and as frantic busyness has become a marker of success, our daily routines have become increasingly divorced from the natural world.

    Now, though, nature is back as the latest iteration of the wellness trend – with some serious scientific heft behind it. In 2009, Dutch researchers found that living within half a mile of green space cut incidences of some 15 diseases – including heart disease, asthma, migraines, depression and diabetes. According to one study, being in nature can even help children with ADHD. Meanwhile, analysis of the so-called ‘Blue Zones’ – areas where people often live to be 100 or more – has shown that working in the garden and walking around the local area contribute to longevity. In the UK, a 2016 study by Natural England found a link between nature-based activities and a decline in dementia symptoms.

    On the back of all this, in 2018 doctors in Scotland’s Shetland Islands started prescribing time outside as part of a holistic approach to health care for conditions such as high blood pressure and anxiety. In Oxford, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare has launched the ‘NHS Forest’ programme, which plants trees on NHS land and encourages communities and councils to engage with local green spaces. Mind, the mental health charity, has a large section on its website dedicated to Ecotherapy. And this year’s Global Wellness Summit, in Hong Kong, will feature ‘Prescribing Nature’ as one of its Global Wellness Trends.

    And everyone seems to be at it: Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg are both known to take ‘walking meetings’ outside. Social media is swamped with images of glamorous young influencers posing with their pot plants or pouting in a park. Leonardo Di Caprio is well-known for his eco-campaigning, as are Anne Hathaway and Penelope Cruz.

    Countless businesses have caught on, from country house hotels offering ‘back to nature’ retreats to beauty brands creating potions stuffed with seaweed and mushrooms. Biofit, a London-based fitness company, has spent money on ‘biophilic design’ and teaches classes outside. Amazon, meanwhile, has built rainforest-esque meeting zones. There is also a slew of books designed to teach us how to really ‘be’ in nature: titles such as The Wild Remedy, Bird Therapy, Forest Therapy and In Praise of Walkingabound. The popular Calm app has a selection of meditations for ‘mindful walking.’

    But is it right for nature itself to become commercialized and commodified like this? When I was a child, going for a walk involved stepping outside in the fresh air, perhaps with wellies on, and setting off. There was no need to practice mindful breathing or to smugly document every passing butterfly on Instagram. The drive to get people outside should be applauded, of course; but there is no ‘right’ way to be in nature. Stepping out of the door should be enough. Naturally.