With the first signs of Autumn already creeping in--browning leaves, birds flying south, pumpkin spiced everything--you might be forgiven for thinking that an afternoon in the great outdoors sounds less than appealing. But an ever-growing body of scientific research suggests that getting out into your local green space will give you more than just fresh air.
From an experiment in the 1970s which showed that patients whose hospital windows faced a brick wall took an extra day to recover than their nature-facing counterparts, to evidence which suggests that being in a green environment makes exercise feel easier, the effect of nature and natural environments on our health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. But why might this be? And what can you do to get the most out of the mountains?
Exposure to the sun is vital for the production of vitamin D--a substance our body finds it difficult to get enough of through food. Vitamin D, in turn, is responsible for healthy bones, as well as the body's synthesis of dopamine and serotonin--both 'happiness' hormones, low levels of which are linked to depression. Research suggests that a vitamin D deficiency raises the likelihood of suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), as it is often linked to the lower levels of sunlight in the winter months.
Similarly, getting active outside during daylight hours may help to increase sleep quality, as it syncs our bodies' circadian rhythms with the environment. Better sleep is a powerful mood stabiliser, and ensuring that our circadian rhythms are functioning at their best helps regulate hormone functions--so our bodies work at their best throughout the day.
The good news is that for paler individuals, just 20 minutes of exposure to the sun (with bare skin, not sunscreen) will give your body enough UV it needs to produce vitamin D. Those with darker skin may need up to ten times longer in the sun, as your skin acts as a natural sunscreen.
But there seems to be more to it than simply being in the sunshine. Researchers have noted a difference in the mood of participants who are out 'in nature' rather than simply 'outside'. It seems that there is a positive effect to be gained from being in a literal jungle that isn't seen in an urban one--in fact, city dwellers are 20% more likely to suffer from depression and at a 40% higher risk of mood disorders than their rural counterparts.
So maybe Pocahontas was on to something when she sang about painting with all the colours of the wind--a recent study also found that backpackers were 50% more creative after spending four days in the wilderness.
It's unclear why this might be, with researchers suggesting everything from the presence of stress-relieving smells (like jasmine, lilac and pine) in the countryside, to the simple idea that being out in nature usually means we're doing something productive. Exercising, playing with a pet, or learning a new skill are all active experiences, which influences our sense of wellbeing.
A common theme in any discussion about nature and happiness is the role of technology: watching TV and scrolling through the internet are passive activities that take little energy, but offer little reward. By disconnecting from the screens for a while, we tend to engage in more productive endeavours which allow us to connect more deeply with our environment, our friends, and ourselves. Perhaps it's time to step away from the Instagram feed and start experiencing nature #nofilter.
By Ellie Hughes - Online Journalism Intern