Research shows that people who connect to the natural environment are happier and healthier. Here’s how you can get your nature fix — even in the city.
Words Emma E Forrest
Cars honking, bustling crowds, bright lights, air pollution, dirty pavements — all of this inevitably takes its toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.
“A built environment with no green in it raises blood pressure and increases stress,” says Dr Jules Pretty, Professor Of Environment And Society at the University of Essex.
In contrast, connecting with nature is good for our mental and physical health, for many different reasons, as we explain here. Good news for city residents – research by Dr Pretty shows that even a five-minute dose in an urban park or garden is very beneficial.
All ways of taking in nature are helpful, he says, whether urban park, nature reserve, garden or farm. “They all have different ecological components that we might enjoy more or less than another, but in terms of environments, all are good for mental health.”
Kickstart your senses
The combination of colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors act together to stimulate our senses, which helps increase our overall wellbeing, says Stephen Buckley, Head Of Information at UK mental-health charity, Mind. “This is something which just doesn’t work in the same way as exercise in gyms or urban environments. This means that gardening and other outdoor hobbies often provide a brilliant alternative to traditional sports and exercise.”
Outdoors exercise can be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety as some antidepressants, says Buckley. “Physical activity involves various things which are known to have mental-health benefits; being surrounded by nature can boost your overall mood and being in regular social contact with people can also boost your self-esteem and reduce loneliness.”
Focus your mind
A stroll in a natural setting can boost your ability to perform tasks that require sustained focus. “Absorbing the sights and sounds of nature is especially beneficial for our minds in terms of clarity and concentration,” says Dr Nick Baylis, Consultant Psychologist at Cambridge University. “When you walk, your heart rate increases, pumping more oxygen to the brain. This then releases hormones that nourish the growth of brain cells and facilitates cognitive functions
and information processing.”
The scent of nature enhances our mental health. “Our sense of smell is closely linked to the parts of the brain responsible for processing emotion,” says Dr Baylis. “Therefore, the scents we inhale have an immediate and profound impact. Trees and plants emit phytoncides, a volatile organic compound and wood essential oil. Inhaling phytoncides slows down breathing and reduces anxiety. Walking through luscious forests, for example, can be beneficial for individuals looking to combat this problem.”
Go with the flow
Water brings its own special benefits, says Dr Baylis. “Negative ions are natural antidepressants and found in high quantities near water. As such, walking trails beside lakes or along river banks are recommended for their benefits to emotional health. While those brave enough to take a dip will experience blood vessels dilating in cool water, which encourages the body to release feel-good endorphins.”
Explore New York’s green heart
This iconic city park gives New Yorkers 843 acres of nature in which to escape Manhattan’s concrete jungle. Take a guided or self-guided tour with the Central Park Conservancy to find new ways of discovering this vast green space.
Meditate on nature
A nature ‘fix’ is about restoring the soul, says wildlife expert — and former BBC wildlife producer for Sir David Attenborough — Fergus Beeley. “This can only be done with the right frame of mind. Look carefully. Observe. Concentrate on the present. The sounds of the breeze in the trees. Try and find some water. Sit and self-reflect. We evolved beside water for many thousands of years. It calms us to be close to it again.”
Beeley runs a two-day ‘Mindfulness In Nature’ retreat at Bailiffscourt, a country house hotel set in 30 acres of private parkland on the West Sussex coast, that’s easily accessible from London.
During the two-day stay, guests learn to tune into nature with guided walks, nature film screenings, tailored talks, outdoor meditation, workshops and wildlife experiences. Beelely’s workshops help guests learn to slow down, focus their minds and engage with nature. “Mindfulness in nature is about being in the present in nature, using meditation and your senses to tune to every aspect of nature,” says Beeley. “Listening to sound of a bird, the sound of wind going past your ear, the feeling of your hair blowing around your cheeks; the smell of the salt from the sea.”
£750 per person for two nights all-inclusive, www.hshotels.co.uk/bailiffscourt
Walk the High Line, New York
Manhattan’s High Line public park offers a nature trail that snakes through the city’s West Side. Find new ways to discover the flora and fauna of these glorious landscaped gardens set on disused elevated rail tracks, with a walk organised by Friends Of The High Line.
Hit the beach, Angola
If you’re visiting Angola, escape the bustle of Luanda at Sangano Beach, a golden stretch of sand due south of the capital. This serene spot nestled between two hills on the coast in the Parque Nacional da Quiçama offers a gorgeous natural landscape, as well as relaxed restaurants and resorts.
You could also receive your nature fix by visiting an art gallery, by seeing how artists get their inspiration from the natural world, suggests Dr Baylis. “Seeing artists express their awe of nature is uplifting and builds an appreciation for the earth, art, and beauty.”
Walking is winning
Hiking in the countryside is good for both body and mind. HF Holidays, the UK’s largest outdoor holiday provider, offers an immersive walking holiday within easy reach of London, on the South Downs, England’s newest national park. The breaks based at country house Abingworth Hall include guided walks in rolling countryside and along the chalky coastal cliffs.
From £209 for three nights, hfholidays.co.uk
Travel by Ecocapsule
Love nature, hate camping?
This ingeniously designed, self-sufficient and very stylish luxury smart house powered by solar and wind energy gives you your own mobile, pop-up futuristic hotel room.
Three easy ways to destress when you can’t get out in nature
Get a houseplant
“Indoor plants are good, as people have to care for them”, says Dr Pretty. “Anything else that creates a calming environment
Watch nature from your window
Dr Pretty prescribes gardening, and other outdoor physical activities… but if you don’t have a garden, you can benefit from just sitting and enjoying looking at nature, he says.
Keep an ear out
Listening to sounds is a very calming activity, says Dr Pretty. “Count them all, and don’t worry about the difference between bird song and a distant engine.”
Nature makes scents
Can’t get to the countryside? Find a product that captures its fragrance instead…
Liz Earle Botanical Essence No.9
This new Eau de Parfum, with its blends of warm chypre and forest fruits, is designed to capture the unique energy that you feel, just after a rainstorm,
as the clouds part and the sun begins to warm the forest floor.
Chantecaille Le Wild
Perfumer Sylvie Chantecaille has designed her latest fragrance, Le Wild, for women to use as a “key to escape from the city or the office into the deep, tangled beauty of nature’s utter freedom”. It combines the heady scent of wild Brazilian gardenia flowers and leaves with casablanca lily, tuberose, jasmine and musk.
ESPA Winter Pine candle
Channel the energising benefits of a bracing wintery walk in a pine forest, with this scented candle, which will fill your home with an aroma of cinnamon, eucalyptus and pine.