As part of the current lockdown, the government has advised us not to leave our houses for things other than getting food, health reasons or work (if you cannot work from home). In addition to this, those of us who are not self-isolating are able to enjoy a daily form of exercise outdoors.
Although we should be careful to keep at least 2 metres apart from anyone outside our household when we are out, making an effort to visit a local open green space for our daily exercise can have healing benefits on our physical and mental health. Nature helps improve our overall mood and reduces stress and anxiety levels (1). It also provides long-term benefits, including reducing the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity (2).
Nature is restorative. Seeing and hearing it makes us feel at home. It makes us feel connected and happier (3). During this lockdown we can enjoy the many benefits the natural environment has to offer; in addition to going on green daily walks or runs, we can also spend time in our own gardens (if we are lucky enough to have one), we can look out of windows, we can take care of house plants and we can use online resources to connect with nature. All of these forms of engagement can benefit us and our overall wellbeing.
Why this matters
NHS Forest has been promoting green spaces for good health and wellbeing for over 10 years. We trust the scientific evidence that shows the importance of interacting with nature. In terms of health benefits, when we are exposed to green spaces, plants and trees, our bodies feel much calmer (4). This happens because nature has a very different effect on our brains when compared to built urban environments (4). Connecting to nature causes our stress hormones to decrease, our brains are able to relax and take a much-needed break and we are able to think better (1).
Although it is hard to pinpoint which aspects of nature provide so many benefits, making an effort to engage with nature is without question beneficial; especially right now as many of us may be experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety in the pandemic.
Taking advantage of our daily outdoor exercise
If you do not belong to a vulnerable group and are not self-isolating, taking the time to go outside for your daily exercise is a great idea. Research shows that exercising outdoors is more beneficial to us than physical activity indoors (5).
There are many resources that can help us feel connected to nature and learn more about our surrounding natural environments during our daily outings. The Woodland Trust, for example, provides a variety of tree identification guides online. This includes an A-Z British tree guide with pictures and videos showing what trees look like throughout the year. It also teaches us about their history and uses.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) offers an online guide to identifying birds common to the UK. This guide includes recordings of bird songs and information on what different species prefer to eat. This is a great resource for getting to know the birds near our homes. Why not build a homemade bird feeder with their favourite seeds? Check out this one made with leftover loo rolls!
We can also take advantage of this time outside to simply take notice of nature. Research shows that paying attention to nature (versus urban built environments) can benefit our wellbeing and improve our quality of life, these benefits are particularly marked for adults with mental health difficulties (6). Research to identify Five Ways to Wellbeing also highlights that taking notice of our surroundings, savouring the moment and paying attention to how we feel plays a major role in our wellbeing. There are apps, such as the Go Jauntly App, that help us share with others pictures of the beautiful natural elements we have spotted during our daily outings. This app is used by thousands all over the UK to create different walking routes which display pictures people have taken along the way.
Staying at home: how do I experience nature?
Even if you are unable to physically visit an outside green space, there are many things you can do to enjoy the benefits nature has to offer.
Looking out of windows has become really important during the lockdown. It allows us to see what is going on around our houses and to get a sense of normality. Does one of your windows offer a view of nature? Take advantage of this view! Research within office spaces shows that having a view of nature can be a “microrestorative experience, one that provides a brief respite to one’s mental fatigue from work” (7). We can apply this learning to our home lives and make a point to enjoy the natural environment available to us through our windows.
You can also join a nationwide movement of birdwatching from the comfort of your own window. RSPB is hosting a weekday Breakfast Birdwatch. Participants share their sightings on social media using the hashtag #BreakfastBirdwatch. You can join in, engage with this online community and share your own bird pictures and videos.
Enjoying gardens and house plants
Caring for a garden if you have one, or even a house plant, can also be very relaxing and good for wellbeing. According to The Royal Horticulture Society (RHS), having house plants helps improve our mood, reduce stress and increase productivity, among other benefits.
Looking to start a green border or bring plants into your home? RHS’ website provides a comprehensive guide to indoor and outdoor plants and how to care for them. Plant shops all over the country have been offering deliveries on plants and supplies, it’s worth checking out what is available in your area!
A number of online resources can also help us think outside the box when it comes to surrounding ourselves with nature. Ever thought of growing vegetable scraps into a garden? This website provides a simple guide with tips anyone can follow!
Take advantage of technology
We can use technology for viewing and listening to nature. Research shows that seeing pictures of natural scenes – when compared to those of urban built environments – can be “particularly effective in supporting relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period” (1). Another study found that participants viewing slides of nature experienced an emotional lift in mood, while the reverse was true for those viewing urban scenes (8). We can learn from this research and take simple steps such as having images of nature around the house or using them as wallpaper on our electronic devices to increase our exposure to greenery.
A number of organisations are responding to the current crisis and using technology themselves to help us access their green spaces. The Cambridge University Botanic Garden, for example, is sharing weekly ‘Wellness Wanders’. These are short recordings of the “sights, colours and sounds of the unfolding Spring” inside the university’s garden. These wonderful videos allow us to have a peek at this iconic garden which contains a plant collection of over 8,000 species!
Other virtual options include watching our favourite nature documentary or going on a virtual nature walk. And here at least we are no longer contained by lockdown. We can go on a walk by a lake, hike up a mountain or stroll along grasslands surrounded by African wildlife – all of this is available here on YouTube!
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