The Mental Health Benefits of Getting into Nature and How to Exercise Outdoors During Lockdown

With Winter coming and four weeks of lockdown on the horizon, it is going to be especially important to find time to get outdoors as a way to help reduce stress, depression and anxiety.

We’ve got plenty more sunny days left this year to blow out the cobwebs and head out on a cycle ride or walk in your local area. It can be social too: across England you can meet up with one other person outside your household to exercise at a safe social distance.

Whether there is a park nearby your house, a canal to walk along, a woodland trail, path through the fields or a wander into your garden, getting back into nature and exercising for just 20 minutes a day can really help to improve your mental health during this stressful time. The less urban the context the better, though getting exercise outdoors in any form will have a positive impact!

This is not new news either! Harvard Health published an article in 2018 on scientific findings that “mood disorders can be lifted by spending more time outdoors”. It doesn’t even need to be for long, the key is getting outdoors regularly. Dr Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance, commented that “anything from 20 to 30 minutes, three days a week, to regular three-day weekends in the woods is helpful.”

5 Ways to Keep Exercising Outside Over Winter

  1. Consistency – build up a routine
  2. Exercise with a friend
  3. Look at a map!
  4. Wear the right kit
  5. Have a back-up plan for indoor activity

Part of these very real benefits of being outdoors are also true of exercise, and it makes complete sense to combine the two! Exercise can release endorphins, commonly known as “runner’s high.” They are are a type of neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger which can help relieve pain and stress.

Healthline goes on to explain that “endorphins are only one of many neurotransmitters released when you exercise. Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood. For example, regular exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in your brain. Raising your levels of serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by depression.”

1. Consistent Exercise – building up a routine

Its harder to start a routine then keep one up once you’ve started! The key is little and often. Try and build a walk into your lunchbreak, a wander around the block to break up each day. Perhaps you used to walk or cycle to work and are now working from home? It may be that you can set aside the same amount of time at the beginning or end of each day as if you were commuting, but instead going for a walk or run for fun! With the days shortening it is easier to get to the end of the day without having been outside and seen the sun, making that extra effort to leave the house, even at dusk, will separate your day from evening – you’ll never regret it!

It’s important to note that there are benefits to being outside without even exercising. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research showed that spending just 20 minutes in a park — even without doing exercise while you’re there is enough to have a positive impact on well-being.

2. Exercise with a friend

Two people from separate households are able to exercise outdoors at a social distance

It is far easier to commit to a run, walk, bike ride or even swim, if you have someone to meet up with. It gives you a timing to meet up, a reason to get up, and will help you commit to a shared outdoor activity with more sincerity than telling yourself you’ll exercise ‘soon’. In England, new national rules and guidelines around lockdown state that “you can exercise or visit outdoor public places with the people you live with, your support bubble, or 1 person from another household”.

3. Look at a map!

Selected region
Credit: Slow Ways

You might discover new routes around you! Geographer and Explorer Dan Raven-Ellison, supported by Ordinance Survey, plans to create maps of walking routes called ‘Slow Ways’ that focus on the prettiest, nicest routes between cities, in and out of them and villages too! The Guardian reported that during the last lockdown, “a team of 700 volunteers have plotted 7,000 routes, which collectively stretch for over 60,000 miles, with an average of 7.5 miles in England and Wales and 12 miles in Scotland.” You can volunteer to take part, or simply take advantage of the maps that will be there (and of course plot your own routes), free of charge and available to all.

We’ll be posting our favourite winter walks around the Cotswolds, Devon and Cornwall on this blog soon so keep a lookout!

4. Wear the right kit

Wonderful Winter Walks. This was taken in Norfolk during the ‘Beast From the East’ Storm that swept through Britain in 2018

When out and about in the Winter, its incredibly important to keep warm and dry! Check the weather forecast and make sure to grab a brolly, raincoat, extra layer in a backpack, perhaps a woolly hat or gloves too! The longer you plan on being outside, the more prepared you should be. Its as simple as tracking down your raincoat and keeping it to hand so you can grab it quickly when you fancy a break outdoors

5. Have a back-up plan for indoor activity

Wall-sits are just one easy exercise to do indoors (doesn’t even require sports kit – you can do it in your PJs and with odd-socks on, no-one’s watching!).

Sometimes, some days, it really is just terrible weather and you might decide to stay warm indoors. It’s always worth having an alternate form of exercise up your sleeve. Whether a Joe Wicks workout video, or a yoga routine you find online. Dancing to music in the kitchen or getting up for a good old tidy up that keeps you on your feet and away from your desk or sofa for a break. Have a read of our blog on How to Exercise at Home For Free.

Exercising, whether indoors or outdoors has proven physical and mental health benefits (as explained in this blog’s introduction).

If you need a helpful reminder of the benefits of being outside and exercising outdoors My Open Country has created a fantastic graphic to get you motivated.

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