I’m writing this blog 5 weeks into the Coronavirus lockdown and it couldn’t be a more apt and relevant time to write about how being outdoors, walking and surrounded by nature can improve your mood, mental and physical wellbeing.
From here in Nottingham, the hills, moors and mountains feel a long way away right now. It’s already beginning to feel like the ‘year that wasn’t’. The DofE season should have been well underway by now and I was fully booked for outdoor work through to October. I was also committed to lead several health and wellbeing weekends away for Mind Over Mountains (MOM) and I had lots of new projects and partnerships under development with other small like-minded businesses. Now, all of these exciting projects and opportunities are on indefinite hold but I’m trying to look at the silver linings because I know how vital it is to remain positive. Now that I’m not dashing around the country, I am taking advantage of this quiet period to reflect, refresh and reinvigorate my own mental health. I don’t often get an opportunity to give myself much needed alone time or take a step back from my busy life.
It’s been lovely to spend more time at home with my partner, to re-discover local parks and neighbourhoods from my door, to learn how to Zoom and to eat a few cakes. There’s actually been lots of cakes (when we can find flour). I’ve rediscovered relaxing at home and anyone who knows me will be well aware that I’m not a person who relaxes easily .. but I’ve learned to embrace it. I’m actually enjoying it.
I’ve also made a conscious decision to step back from social media a little during the lockdown. I’m usually extremely busy on social media as it’s a focal point for promoting my business. However, I found myself getting anxious about a social feed full of COVID-19 updates, breaking news and broadcasts. It was also difficult to see the all the photos of amazing mountains that I can’t get to at the moment! So, I’ve not been as active on social media. I think that’s been important for my mental health and relaxation.
Back in February I attended the Explorers Connect Adventure Mind Conference at YHA London Lee Valley. I was representing First 4 Adventure and the conference was attended by a diverse group of explorers, adventurers, researchers, scientists and those who work in the outdoors.
The aim of the conference was to showcase and promote the latest research about the benefits of being in the outdoors, be it physical or emotional. The speakers were from a broad background and while many of the presentations were heavy on the science and research side, it was interesting to see the facts and figures and to find out what research has been done, or is being delivered and how we can combine outdoor pursuits to aid mental health. Presenters spoke about how we can intentionally design outdoor experiences to positively impact mental health, as well as how we can measure the impact.
It was also a great opportunity to network, share ideas and collaborate with some truly inspirational speakers and conference attendees.
The highlight for me was hearing Hetty Key, founder of Women in Adventure deliver the results of her survey about women in the outdoors. As I’d participated in the survey, I was especially interested to hear her findings.
The aim of Key’s study was to understand how different sports affect the mental wellbeing of women in order to help brands and organisations increase participation and improve diversity. In her own words, “women all reiterated the same message” — that being outside and participating in sport or adventurous activities helped them to feel happy, free, focused, relaxed and calm. Key’s study found that: “99.7% of 3000 women aged 25 – 55 years-old surveyed, say they strongly agree or agree that the outdoors benefitted on their mental wellbeing.”
Personally, I know that being in the outdoors and nature helps my mood, my physical well-being and my confidence and I’ve always wanted to foster that in others. My background and passion for this work stems from a 15 year career working with occupational therapy in a mental health hospital. I qualified as a Summer Mountain Leader in 2017 and decided then to combine both my knowledge, experience and expertise in this area. I’ve seen first-hand how outdoor interventions can improve mental well-being.
I have since led walks for Black Dog Outdoors and I am now a member of the Mind Over Mountain team. Both organisations have a mission of encouraging mental and physical well being through outdoor pursuits. Mind Over Mountains organise weekends away in remote locations for people to recharge, reconnect and rest. Past events have included mindfulness sessions, guided walks, counselling, NLP sessions and motivational speakers.
The benefit of being outdoors are well understood and proven, and include increased self-esteem, empowerment, resilience, a sense of achievement and reduced social anxiety. Being in natural light and fresh air can boost your mood and help you feel revitalised.
There are a lot of good practices out there that combine the benefits of being outdoors with improved mental health, including social prescribing. Social prescribing enables GPs, nurses and other health care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services, including simply going for a walk.
Medical intervention may not always be the answer. Perhaps a dose of outdoor activity can help someone reduce their fear and build confidence and resilience, or combat depression or anxiety. I wholly support national and local agendas that include the importance of outdoor pursuits as a means to improve quality of life, emotional and general wellbeing.
And now I want to finish by saying a word or two about First 4 Adventure. Their ethos matches mine in that they are proactively putting in good practice. They actively support the mental health and well-being of both team members and the young people going through the DofE award. First 4 Adventure encourages discussion about mental health as a way to reduce stigma and discrimination. We are encouraged to open up to each other which makes it feel more like a family than a work team. Several of their staff, including myself, are trained as Mental Health First Aiders and we communicate this with the schools that we work with.
In closing, I want to say I hope you are all ok during this lockdown period. I can tell you, as I tell myself each day, that the mountains are resting, recovering and restoring and that they will be waiting for us when we are allowed to return.
Emma Holland Mountain Training
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