Nature and Movement

written by Chris Graham (views employees own)

Green Steps – moving into nature.

When navigating nature outdoors

you twist, you lift, you swing.

you dig, you climb, you push.

you stretch, you pull, you weed.

you carry, you slide, you soar.

you plunge, you sink, you stop.

Life can be tough, so look after yourself. Support your mental performance by MOVING. Your body will thank you. Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 takes place from 13th to 19th May, on the theme of “Movement: Moving”. Life gets busy and it can feel like we don’t have time to spend on activities to improve our wellbeing. But, finding moments for movement throughout the day might be easier than you think. How often do you find yourself ‘waiting’ throughout the day? Waiting for the kettle to boil; for your children to come out of school; for a bus to arrive; or for a delivery. These moments can add up. If you use the time to get moving, that will add up too. But where should this happen?

Do you think of the gym as your favourite place to work out, surrounded by dumbbells, treadmills and rowing machines? . For some working out, in the gym is their way of moving. However, for others, they keep fit by doing physical movement in their everyday lives. That’s moving with a purpose. This article focusses on moving with a “green purpose”. Trees, woods, and the outdoors is the green gym. ‘Green exercise’ can improve how you feel about yourself, melting away your stress. Recent studies have found that it’s not just the physiological effects of exercise, regular use of woodland or parks for physical exercise reduces the risk of poor mental health, no such pattern was found in the “brown built environment” of gyms.

Today’s physical movement is not a need to survive. Modern life now is more of flicking a switch or the swipe of a screen as you order your chosen food, delivered right to your door. We don’t wash the dishes or walk to the supermarket. We enjoy ourselves by sitting, watching TV or engaging the virtual world with our smartphone. This modern sedentary way of life negatively impacts on our wellbeing. It takes over an hour of vigorous activity to cancel out the ill-effects of sitting in a day. So move a little, all the time. How often do you move in the outdoors where nature lives and breathes?

We all vary in how much we connect with nature. To simplify things, think of three connection zones: 

  • The red zone is disconnected with nature, 
  • The amber zone is partially connected with nature.
  • The green zone, powered up connection with nature. 

Which zone do you fall into ? It depends on your lifestyle and personal values, how you spend your current leisure time, how financially affordable it is, your ability to travel to urban and rural green spaces and how physically fit you are. Ask yourself what kind of lifestyle choices to you make? Is age and family commitment important? Are you struggling with poor mental health?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends that people with mild to moderate depression take part in about three physically activity sessions a week, lasting about 45 minutes to 1 hour, for at least 10 to 14 weeks. Being active is proven to uplift your mood. The key is finding a green activity that you enjoy, making it part of your everyday. Woodland walking increases positive thoughts. Walking briskly in your local park can help you to change the way you think about things and see them in a better light. Nature has the power to help us solve problems and to break through creative blocks. People who live where there are trees and green spaces are less anxious and depressed. The positive effects of trees on people’s mental well-being last longer than short-term boosts to happiness such as getting a pay rise or getting married. it is with our sense of touch that we can begin to physically and literally reconnect with nature.  Feel the breeze on your face, let the water of a stream, ripple through your hands, lie on the ground, take your shoes off and go barefoot. 

Connect by moving through the natural green landscape.

If someone is in the red zone, their mind, body or senses may limit that connection with nature: Physical disability prevents mobility. Flat surfaces are needed. Partially sighted or hard of hearing limit the ability to absorb all the five nature senses. Being in the early or middle stages of dementia can mean its unsafe walking alone outside. Your living circumstance is another red zone reason: Living in urban estates that are nature desserts, it’s a long travel distance to green spaces. Being unemployed, dependent on DWP benefits, nature access is barrier. You may not drive or cannot afford the travel costs. Having to work very long working hours or work multiple part times jobs, reduces your time to go somewhere green. Night shifts reduces your green daylight gym time.  Poor wellbeing pushes people into the red zone, such as using drugs. Heavy use of alcohol during the evening can be a nature blocker as does long hours, every night on the internet or gaming. Choice of lifestyle is another barrier. The time to go outdoors is when you shop. You don’t like to go out if is raining or the outdoors is there to picnic. You have a garden, but it is neglected, more a storage area. You like to buy fashion clothes not outdoors clothes designed for protection from wind, rain or cold.  You may be a person who is comfortable with a sedentary lifestyle.. Your personal values is another important factor: You do not believe in recycling waste household products or not interested in conservation. You like to eat ultra processed food preprepared heat, animal welfare is of no concern. Socially, you have no friends who enjoy the outdoors.  You may disregard countryside rules, leaving litter or park in unsuitable places. You Impulse buy indoor plants from supermarket, rarely watering them. 

What if you occupy the “halfway” amber zone, just partially connected moving in nature? 

Moderate physical health problems limit walking and gardening but easy short walks in the countryside is possible. You work sitting at a desk all day but like walking your dog every day. Many of us live in estates with close access to parks.  Those that are older and frail, fearful of the outdoors, hold precious memories of nature so they make the effort to stroll tree lined roads close to where they live. Others regularly spend time in their park but get bored, so they  switch on their smartphone to connect with social media. Some may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their body shape, conscious of others in public places, staring. Being shy or are experiencing social anxiety disorder, know connecting with wild nature could help. You want to move and connect with nature but poor Mental Health  restricts your opportunity to do so. Many women are struggling with menopause for years or have young demanding children. Others are spending time looking after frail parents and kids with little time left for themselves. Such life situations can trigger loneliness. You feel less lonely in wild habitats. That deep connection with nature can be the accelerant motivation fuel to be more active. Moving increases your chance of good mental health. If you are experiencing mild depression, it just needs lifestyle changes to help lift depression. Physical movement can help. Those experiencing moderate depression, some may find antidepressants only partially work, would benefit from walking on the wild side: a woodland or lakeside path. Stuck in the amber zone could be a consequence of lifestyle. You own a garden, impulse buying plants at retail outlets, plans for the garden remain in your head, just ideas. You have a number of household plants but little nurturing knowledge or plant species. You occasionally explore the outdoors, respecting the countryside rules. You cannot name trees, plants species or birds but can spot popular wild animals, getting pleasure watching. The views of the countryside are clicked by your smartphone camara and uploaded to impress Facebook or Instagram friends. Your focus when walking is listening to music rather than focussing on nature sounds or natural silence. You do have some outdoor clothing but the wind, cold and rain feels unpleasant. People in the amber zone, typically like to sit outdoors and experience nature for between 2 mins and 20 mins each week. The majority of their friends do not value the outdoors but have a couple that do. Their own walking shoes but they are ill fitting. They enjoy spring and summer weather but not autumn or winter.

Physical movement in nature is at its most extensive and regular if you in the green zone. 

Moving outdoors has become a way of life. People live in the green zone, enjoy rambling hiking or long-distance walking using specialist outdoor boots/shoes and clothing. They are active gardeners, designing wild areas in their garden or grow vegetables to eat. They enjoy growing plants from seeds potting on, weeding and like digging. They have a compost bin. When designing their home, the location and type of indoor plants are considered. They carefully select plants in rooms at home for their colour, scent: taking into account room humidity, light and draft conditions. They want easy and quick access to wild green or blue spaces, so they may choose to live in semi remote, village communities or are prepared to travel in their car for at least an hour. They are members of conservation charities or local gardening groups. They are passionate about nature and green issues, choosing to source plants that are native to UK. Some tend an allotment, greenhouse or polytunnel. Typically, in the green zone, people spend at least plus two hours a week in the wild outdoors. They enjoy wind, rain and cold experiences. They like to sit outdoors and experience nature for more than 20 minutes every day. Most of their friends enjoy the outdoors. Socialising involves going out with friends, walking or cycling. They enjoy evenings outside when the light is fading. Being outdoors means all four seasons, especially autumn and winter.

Now rate your self on the following: How motivated are you to connect with nature by walking in wild places?

  1. The outdoors and nature frighten me. I feel scared, walking in wild unknown places which are out of my control. Experiencing nature feels uncertain and stressful. I am most comfortable being in my own home, it is where I feel safe. 
  2. I am stressed about the outdoors and nature. Thoughts about being in open green spaces are negative and can trigger worry thoughts such as “what if” scenarios. This can make me feel threatened by nature.
  3. I dislike the outdoors and nature. I am not interested in thinking about engaging with nature. I am far from achieving my full potential. I am not aware that I am are cut off from nature.  Because of this, I am stuck. I have no intention to engage with nature. I do not see this as changing in the future. 
  4. I am not interested in the outdoors and nature. Sometimes, I am aware that I am fed up with how my life is but nothing can be done about it. I am unaware that not engaging with nature is having an unhelpful impact on my life. I watch mainstream broadcast or streaming TV such as gardening or wildlife programs. It was for my entertainment rather applying it to me. 
  5. I cannot be bothered about the being outdoors and experiencing nature. Sometimes I have had enough of living in the built environment all or most of the time and want things to change. The first sign of the possibility of change is present for me is when I feel fed up with how things are. I do not believe I have the confidence to engage with nature.
  6. I am fed up with little connection with nature but not ready yet to do things outdoors. I want to change and engage with nature in some small way. I do not know how to engage more deeply with nature. I strongly feel I cannot carry on with my usual work and home life routines. I am weighing up the pros and cons of remaining in the way I live my life now versus the pros and cons of changing my lifestyle connecting with nature. 
  7. I am curious about the outdoors and nature and have experimented with nature in a small way. I have weighed up those pros and con and realise that connecting with nature will improve my Mental Health. There have been some tiny engagements with nature This planning and preparation is inconsistent. I am not yet ready to take action to engage with nature in a deep and longer lasting way.  
  8. I like the outdoors and nature. My new ways of engaging with nature are small steps such as greening my home and trying out things in my garden These small changes are now quite well-established. At times of life crisis I am at risk of slipping back and stop using nature based movement coping strategies. 
  9. I love the outdoors and nature. It is becoming part of who I am. I am starting to have my own ideas on what works for me in regards nature-based activities. I now have a sense of what works for me and what does not work for me. I do experience some setbacks, but I respect moving in nature and appreciate it is very importance to me personally.
  10. 10.I am healthily addicted to the outdoors and nature. I now do not need help from anyone engaging with nature. My empathy with nature is now deeply rooted inside of me. Every day, week and month, I am moving in nature in a planned way: I am in control. 

Mental health is increasingly becoming a motivating factor for people to get moving – a survey from 2023 revealed that mental health scores higher than getting in shape as the main motivation for exercise. Even a short burst of 10 minutes’ brisk walking can boost our mood and increase our mental alertness and energy. Movement helps us feel better about our bodies and improve self-esteem. It can also help reduce stress and anxiety and help us to sleep better.

Spend time in nature. Spending time outside and in green spaces can be great for your physical and mental wellbeing. You could take a walk in the countryside or through a local park, taking time to notice trees, flowers plants and animals you see on the way, or you can take time to spend in conservation whether that’s digging in your own garden or taking part in a local green project.