This month, 9 members of the Winchester Hub committee are trying to collectively walk 550km. Recently, I have walked to St. Cross and the meadows around Hockley Viaduct. I may go to Winnall Moors next in the small hope of seeing roe deer. Popular walks around Winchester include St. Catherine’s Hill and St Giles’ Hill, both of which give great vistas of the city, and Barton Meadows.  Here I will try to persuade you to visit any green space where you live. For students, amongst many others, the demonstrable mental and physical health benefits even from passive or short-term exposure to nature can be an effective tool against stress.

More than half of UK adults surveyed said that being close to nature improved their mental health, and almost 2/3 said that being close to the natural world meant they experienced positive emotions. It can bring calm, joy and wonder to someone's daily life.

The benefits of nature for emotional and mental wellbeing

Just walking can reduce or even prevent anxiety and depression. In part, this is because it produces dopamine and endorphins in the brain, two mood-boosting hormones. The benefit to mental wellbeing can increase when exercise is in nature. A Korean study showed that viewing nature scenes lit up parts of the brain associated with altruism and empathy. Images of highly trafficked urban landscapes instead activated the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with anxiety.

Ecotherapy (formal therapy involving outdoor activities done in nature) can be effective for various complex mental illnesses. One study on PTSD treatment drew on a theory of two kinds of attention: spontaneous and directed. Being in nature prompted spontaneous attention, which helped heal the nervous system exhausted by the trauma. This was coupled with occupational therapy, and many participants maintained an interest in horticulture or similar activities afterwards, often with a focus on mental and physical restoration. Moreover, some people recently bereaved said that the one thing that brought them comfort was to spend time in nature; its positive role in the grieving process was demonstrated by a Stanford study which showed that a 90-minute walk through nature decreases rumination/brooding, which predicted mental illness after loss.

Benefits of nature for physical and cognitive health

Exposure to nature can lower blood pressure and calm the body due to its effect on the brain, but also there are many more physiological benefits,  for example, when somebody is outside, their body produces Vitamin D. In the long-term, regular time spent outdoors, even without any vigorous exercise, has been shown to lead to lower rates of heart disease, osteoporosis, MS, some cancers, and obesity. It can also improve attention span, especially for people with ADD. Although lack of access to nature is an area of concern, the implied intrinsic benefits of closeness to nature mean that even just having houseplants or listening to birdsong can give a lot of comfort and sense of beauty.

One study showed that the practice of walking/ mild exercise, which it could be nice to do outdoors, increases cerebral blood flow and promotes the development of new blood vessels in the brain (angiogenesis). This process led to the growth of new neural tissue, linked to memory, and was just as effective in older age groups.

Please consider donating to our sponsored walk here: Winchester Hub is fundraising for Student Hubs (justgiving.com). Your donations will support the organisation to continue making a difference for community groups in Winchester and engage more volunteers.

References

Nature and the Brain - alive magazine

Can Walking Really Prevent And Treat Depression? - Wild Women On Top

‘Everything just seems much more right in nature’: How veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder experience nature-based activities in a forest therapy garden (nih.gov)

Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation | PNAS

What is ecotherapy? - Mind

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