Finding winter wellbeing in green and blue places of nature

Spending time in parks and forests, by rivers, lakes and coasts, benefits our state of mind

Evidence has shown that spending time in green spaces – parks, forests and mountains – and blue spaces – rivers, canals, lakes and coastline – reduces physical stress and enhances mental wellbeing. Photograph: Eric Luke

Evidence has shown that spending time in green spaces – parks, forests and mountains – and blue spaces – rivers, canals, lakes and coastline – reduces physical stress and enhances mental wellbeing. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

“We benefit much more from clean air, pure water, good food and exercise and strong communities than we do from hospitals, medicines and clinics.” This comment from Prof Martin Cormican, NUI Galway is writ large in the recent report, Ireland’s Environment – An Assessment 2016.

The wide-ranging Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, which is published every four years, drew strong links between a well-protected environment and good health, particularly in the chapter entitled Our Environment, Our Health, Our Wellbeing.

In November, the EPA and the HSE Health and Wellbeing division came together for the first time to co-host a conference on the environment and health. At that conference, Dr Stephanie O’Keeffe, national director of health and wellbeing at the HSE argued that many of the key determinants of health and disease – as well as the solutions – lie outside the direct control of the health sector, in sectors concerned with the environment, water, agriculture, energy, housing etc.

At the same conference, Laura Burke, director general of the EPA, stressed that our most basic needs are clean air, safe drinking water, safe shelter and healthy food, each of which is directly influenced by the quality of our environment. “Preventing damage to the environment also helps to protect our health and wellbeing,” Burke said.

Similar links between nature and health were drawn at environmental education and conservation volunteering conferences in Mayo, Clare and Wicklow earlier in 2016. Speakers presented evidence that spending time in green spaces – parks, forests and mountains – and blue spaces – rivers, canals, lakes and coastline – reduces physical stress and enhances mental wellbeing. Doctors in Ireland are starting to hand out green and blue prescriptions, encouraging people to walk, run and spend time in nature.

International research has already led the way on reconnecting with nature. Studies such as Feeling Better Outside, Feeling Better Inside: Ecotherapy for Mental Wellbeing, Resilience and Recovery (mind.org.uk) have led to people spending time outdoors to feel well. As the world becomes increasingly urbanised, so-called “relatively quiet areas” are also being designated for protection as antidotes to noisy urban environments.

Prof Michael Depledge from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School spoke at the aforementioned environment and health conference. He pointed to four distinct benefits from spending time outdoors – an increase in the (body’s) use of energy through walking, standing or running, improved sense of wellbeing and reduced risk of psychiatric disorders through mental stimulation, increased social cohesion and long-term motivation. “Natural environments provide opportunities for a large proportion of England’s recreational physical activity and need to be protected and managed for health purposes,” he said.

The EPA and the HSE are currently co-funding research into the eco-system benefits to our health.

Ecotherapist David Staunton and social worker Shirley Gleeson are forerunners of this movement that sees the intrinsic value of nature to our physical health and mental wellbeing. As well as offering psychotherapy and counselling outdoors, Staunton hosts regular walks through his Ecotherapy Hedge School (walkinniu.ie). He is also a founder member of the Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy Association of Ireland (eeai.ie), launched in 2016 to reconnect people with nature.

“There is a beautiful truth and honesty in nature and when people relax outdoors, nature can become their ultimate ally,” says Staunton, who spent about 35 days walking alone through Ireland’s natural landscape in the summer of 2016. “When we give ourselves the space – whether it’s a few hours or a few days – we come right back to ourselves. It almost rewires us,” he adds.

Gleeson, the founder of DLR Nature for Health and Nature, Health and Wellbeing Ireland (naturehealthwellbeingireland.ie), also trains forest therapy guides across Europe (natureandforesttherapy.org). These guides take groups on specific forest trails, incorporating sensory awareness exercises (touching trees and water in streams, listening out for birdsong, etc), mindful walking and personal reflection into their walks.

“The forest becomes the therapist and the guide opens the door. Once people move into their bodies, they give themselves a break from thinking which reduces their stress,” Gleeson says. “We have had amazing feedback from people who say they experience nature in a whole new way. When people slow down and engage, they open up and begin to notice what’s in movement around them.”

Gleeson has recently completed her master’s degree in health promotion which examined forest therapy. “I found that with two hours walking in the forest every week for six weeks, people improved their wellbeing and reduced their stress,” she says.

Together with forestry expert Diarmuid McAree, Gleeson is now keen to develop specific forest therapy trails throughout Ireland. “Forest ecotherapy is gaining international recognition as a form of health restoring recreation in which nature does the healing,” says McAree. “It helps heal our minds, our bodies, our hearts and our spirits within a forest setting and has proven medical health benefits including lowered blood pressure, lowered heart rate, elevated mood, lowered cortisol or stress hormone levels, improved sleep and acceleration of recovery from surgery and illness.”

McAree also works with a group of specialists in the United Nations, promoting green jobs in the forest sector. He is currently planning a workshop on forest ecotherapy and recreation to be held in Dublin in June 2017. “Utilising forests effectively in health promotion could reduce public health care budgets and create new sources of income by creating green forest jobs such as forest interpreters and nature trail guides to ecotourism businesses and recreation centres.”

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