By: Suzy Glaskie
Last week, I got to experience a big dose of nature immersion, having spent four nights camping in Cornwall. Even though the weather was decidedly "mixed", I felt blessed to be able to spend so much time in the outdoors: swimming in a cold but magical lake, bodyboarding on rain-lashed waves, cycling through bluebell-lined woods, skimming pebbles on a deserted beach, walking on a coastal path while the wind whipped up the sea below - and looking at the stars when the sky cleared.
We instinctively know that being in contact with nature brings us feelings of happiness and peace. When our lives are overtaken by stress, it’s the healing power of nature that we crave to rebalance and restore us. There’s no question about it…being close to nature improves our physical, mental and spiritual well being. And you don’t need to go camping in Cornwall to experience its benefits.
You can even tune into this healing power from where you’re reading this now. Just imagine yourself walking through a wood, surrounded by birdsong, or trailing your hand in a babbling brook, touched by the warm sun and a fresh breeze. Lovely, isn’t it?
An ever-growing body of research is showing that spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces, is one of the fastest ways to improve our health and happiness. It’s deeply therapeutic and has immediate, positive effects on our stress, blood pressure, heart rate and immune system. It makes us feel energised, encourages us to move our body, clears our head and boosts our creativity. It even improves our memory function!
Greenery is so powerful that even looking at a picture of trees has been shown to help us feel calmer (and it’s remarkable to think that patients who have a view of nature from their hospital bed recover more quickly than those looking at a brick wall!).
Spending just 20 minutes in a park, even if you don’t exercise while you’re there, has been shown to be enough to improve your well-being. Another study found that spending just two hours in nature every week helps you to feel healthy and more satisfied with your lifestyle. And you don’t need to be doing anything strenuous – just spending time surrounded by nature is enough.
These days, most of us are suffering from a “nature deficit”, as the majority of our day-to-day life is anchored indoors. Here are some easy, practical ways to bring nature back into your life:
- If you have access to a garden or other outdoor space at home, try taking advantage of it first thing and watch how it transforms your morning. Before you get hooked into your emails and social media feeds, take a few minutes to get outside. Look at the sky, the shapes of the trees, the changing leaves. Feel the grass beneath your feet. Listen to the rustle of the leaves and the chime of birdsong. Take a few deep breaths and enjoy the uplifting, restorative qualities of nature.
- Have a think about what daily activities you could do outdoors rather than indoors. What about that phone call you need to make? Or your morning cup of coffee? Or your daily workout? Once you start looking for opportunities, you’ll be surprised at how much you can benefit from the outdoors, without losing any time from your day.
- You may have an overloaded schedule of meetings booked, but can you take 10 minutes to walk outside? It’s easy to become chained to your laptop, promising you’ll take a break ‘just after I’ve replied to this email’. But, if you’re able to, do go for a walk (if you have access to some greenery, even better!). The key is to put your phone away and look up – it will give you a whole new perspective on the world. You’ll come back feeling infinitely calmer, more clear-headed, more positive and ready to crack on with your afternoon’s jobs.
- Try forest bathing (the Japanese have a name for this: Shinrin-yoku). Treat yourself to a trip to your nearest wood and savour the feeling of being amidst trees. Try giving one a hug too – it’s a lovely feeling to stare up at the branches above you. Forest bathing may sound a bit “new-age”…but research has shown that people who practice forest bathing have optimum nervous system functions and well-balanced heart conditions. They even have reduced bowel disorders!
- Bring nature indoors by putting plants on your workplace desk and around your house, where they’ll help detoxify the air you breathe. Studies have shown that plants also help boost your productivity, concentration and creativity.
- Don’t forget about herbs: get yourself a couple of potted herb plants from the supermarket and keep them on your windowsill. Growing herbs in a pot brings so many benefits: just stroking and inhaling the uplifting aroma of basil or rosemary leaves will make you feel better. And there’s nothing like snipping off a few leaves to add to your cooking. Not only do herbs make your food taste delicious – they’re also great for supporting your immune system.
- Essential oils are a wonderful way to calm ourselves. Buy a diffuser to have their gorgeous scents wafting through your home. Orange essential oil is an instant mood-booster while lavender is very calming: take deep breaths of it and, as you exhale, imagine yourself letting go of all the stresses of your day. Diffusing particular essential oils near where you are working has been shown to improve performance in memory tasks and stimulate the brain. I use a combination of peppermint and rosemary oils, which have been proven to improve concentration and focus. As a bonus, they smell really refreshing and uplifting, as well as providing a natural boost to our mental energy.
- Get yourself a packet of seeds and have a go at sowing your own herbs or veggies. It’s a real thrill to see the little seedlings poke their heads out of the soil – and gives us a huge sense of fulfilment to watch them spring to life.
Suzy Glaskie is a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach, founder of Peppermint Wellness and host of the Wellness Unwrapped podcast.