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How nature positively impacts our mental health and wellbeing

Published: 10/05/2021
With ‘Nature’ appearing as the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we explore the science behind why being outside is good for you and your client’s mental health.

One thing the pandemic has helped reinforce is the understanding that spending time in nature is good for us. Not too long ago, out of necessity, a walk around the local park (or forest if you’re lucky) was the most exciting outing for many of us. Adding to this, the dawn of remote working even spawned the ‘Fake Commute’1, a term applied to a trip around the block which tricks our minds into thinking that our daily routine is somehow ‘normal’.

After playing such a big part in our lives over the past 13 months, it makes sense that the theme for this year’s Mental Health Week is nature – the thing many of us seek when we go outside, often without even realising it. According to Mind, activities like gardening or walking the dog can help improve our mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger and help us feel more relaxed2  - something put to the test by many of us throughout multiple lockdowns.

A UK study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said their mental health had declined during lockdown, with some seeing pre-existing symptoms worsen and others developing issues as a result of the pandemic3.

These findings were reflected by a recent survey by Vitality involving its members in the UK, which found that one in five surveyed were more anxious and one in four were more stressed than in the pre-lockdown period4.

With lockdown restrictions easing, it’s important to remember the role that nature, going for a stroll and, of course, physical exercise can all play in supporting our own mental health, as well as the wellbeing of your clients – whether they are individual planholders or employers with staff to look after. These are the reasons why:

Getting regular exercise outside is easier

World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour from November 2020 recommend that we do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week – or an equivalent combination. However, achieving this during lockdown was not as easy – especially initially. Our data showed 28% fewer physical events, such as cardio sessions, gym workouts and daily step counts, during the first two weeks of the pandemic compared to the earlier part of 20205.

Looking at our most engaged members, the physical activity gap is over twice as large in London than the average for the rest of the country in the first lockdown6. The easing of lockdown saw a return to normal levels of physical activity for the rest of the country, but our data shows London never returning to pre-pandemic levels of physical activity – something that can perhaps in part be attributed to less available green space.

Most recent global estimates show that 27.5% of adults7  and up to 81% of adolescents8  do not meet the lower limit of the amount of exercise recommended by WHO.

As well as improving quality of sleep, physical activity is proven to boost cognitive skills, which includes emotional wellbeing as well as increased memory and attention span. A meta-analysis of 15 studies, lasting between one to 12 years involving over 33,000 individuals, found that physical activity is associated with a 38% reduced risk of cognitive decline9. Cognitive decline includes everything from the ability to concentrate to dementia.

It’s widely accepted that the benefits of physical activity are wide-ranging and can be felt immediately. Performing physical activity regularly will typically enhance these benefits further - so why not do it outside?

Let the sunshine in!

Exposure to sunlight – and therefore Vitamin D - is another way that being outside can support our health and wellbeing. Studies show that one in five of us suffer from lower levels of vitamin D and this increases to one in three post-winter10. Many of us in the UK are starved of it come April, so it is worth recharging our Vit D reserves in the May sunshine (if it ever fully arrives).

As Vitality Magazine explored in a recent article, the vitamin not only contributes to the working of many of the body’s main functions and helps protect against serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease11 and some cancers12, it also can also help fight depression and fatigue13 as well as boosting our immune system14. They say sunshine is good for the soul – it is for our mind and body too.

Why not hug a tree?

Usually more associated with hippies and environmental conservationists, apparently there is truth to the mental health benefits associated with hugging trees, if research is to be believed.

Walking in nature reduces the risk of depression, compared to urban areas15, according to research by Stanford University in 2015.

In fact, city dwellers have a 20% higher risk of anxiety disorders – and 40% more chance of mood disorders – compared to people in rural areas, the study into neurological brain functions showed.
Studies have also shown that spending time in nature, exposed to plants, can also boost our immune system16. This is because plants release airborne chemicals called phytoncides, which according to experts, have health benefits for humans too. It’s no surprise, then, that plant sales for homes and gardens boomed during the pandemic17.

Meanwhile, when asked in 2017, only 3% of us believed that we spend enough time with nature even though 90% said it makes us feel happier, according to research by Dr Miles Richardson . One positive side effect of the pandemic is that levels of appreciation for nature will have risen widely and significantly. We hope this continues.

Find out how the Vitality Programme can help your clients get more active in a way that benefits their mental health and wellbeing.

3. Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic
4. Ref: Vitality Assessment Survey H1 2020
6. Vitality member activity data adjusted for activity type and split by region, 15th March 2020 to 22nd March 2021
7. Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001.
8. Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents.
9. Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: A meta-analysis of prospective studies.