If you’re not sick, now’s the time to reconnect with nature

Lifestyle

Things are starting to shut down in the UK, thanks to coronavirus. Marathons are being rescheduled, shops are going online and workplaces are finally allowing people to work from home.

It’s all starting to feel a little bit claustrophobic. That’s why those of us who are well should get outside.

If you’ve got a cough or fever for seven days, stay at home (why would you want to go outside anyway in those circumstances?), but if you feel fine and you’ve not been in contact with any sick people then it’s time for a breath of fresh air.

It’s easy at times like this to let mass panic get the better of you – particularly if you spend hours logged on to Twitter. Stepping away from the computer and taking yourself into nature, however, gives you a virus-free chance to give your worried mind a break and to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors.

We know that spending time outside is good for us.

A 2018 study by the University of East Anglia found that exposure to green space has ‘significant and wide-ranging health benefits’, including reduced risks of type II diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease – and that’s before you get onto the mental health aspects.

Lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: ‘Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn’t been fully understood.

‘We gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to see whether nature really does provide a health boost.’

The green space studied ranged from woodlands to urban parks and street vegetation like trees. They all had the same effect, meaning that whether you live in Hackney or Herefordshire, you can reap serious benefits from getting outside and walking to your nearest green spot.

‘One of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress,’ Twohig-Bennett continued.

‘This is really important because in the UK, 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety.’

The best thing is that you don’t have to touch anything. Simply lock your front door, make sure you’ve got a pack of tissues and your hand sanitiser (just in case) and go for a 30-minute walk – listening to the birds chirping and wind in the trees as you go.

So many of us live closer to patches of nature than we realise. There are 27,000 parks and green spaces across the UK with 3,000 public open green spaces in London.

The canal towpaths, for example, at London’s worst-kept secret – offering stunning, car-free routes from Enfield to Paddington and beyond.

‘If anyone needs a prescription, it should be to “get outdoors”!,’ says Simone Atallah, PT and founder of outdoor women’s fitness collective, Fitnic.

‘There are so many reasons why getting out in the open is great for our health and soul. Exercise is just one of them and it goes hand-in-hand with our mental health. Consistent exercise outperforms any kind of medication in helping to combat depression or anxiety and exercising outdoors allows us to take in clean air, energy from nature and some good old vitamin D – something an indoor gym cannot offer.

‘You’ll find yourself being more creative with your workout, able to train for longer than you would indoors, meet like-minded people and come into contact with plenty of cute dogs!’

But you don’t have to be doing a HIIT session outside or going for a long run to absorb all the goodness – just moving in nature, being in nature is enough.

Most of us think that winter air causes colds and flu and although it’s true that bugs tend to crop up during the colder months, it’s actually circulated air in closed environments that may be to blame for you getting sick. All the bad stuff just gets recycled – so the more time you spend indoors, the more you’re exposed.

Being outside, however, you’re able to breathe in fresh, outdoor air – reducing the risk of infection. It also helps to boost your immune system (something we could all do with at the moment).

Japanese medics spent eight years studying the physical and mental effects of forest bathing. They measured the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after participants went into the woods. Those cells are vital for producing rapid responses to virus-infected cells and responding to tumor formation – keeping the body free from bugs and things like cancer.

They found that people had significant increases in NK cell activity in the week following a forest visit – with the positive effects lasting a month after each weekend in the woods.

Why is being in nature so good for our immune systems? It’s all down to the essential oils (AKA phytoncides) that are found in plants and trees. They tend to release them as a protection measure against germs and insects and when we breathe them in, they help us to protect our systems too. So that lovely forest air actually does smell fresher and cleaner.

So if you’re already fed up with being at home but you’re worried about socialising in enclosed spaces, why not make start meeting your mates for walks around your local park/canal/green space? It’s free, it’s safe (as long as you and your friends are not ill) and it could make you feel a whole lot better.