I’m a great believer in the health-boosting capacity of regular activity both for body and mind. I was therefore interested to read today the results of a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Essex in the UK which looked at the effects of walking on mood. The study involved comparing the effects of taking a 30-minute walk in either the countryside or a shopping centre. After the country walk, 71 per cent on participants reported feeling less depressed or tense, and while 80 per cent reported an improved sense of self-esteem. In comparison, only 45 per cent experienced a decrease in depression after walking in a shopping centre, while 50 per cent reported feeling more tense and 44 per cent reckoned their self esteem had actually gone down.
I have not seen any statistical analysis of this study, but on the face of it, this research does look like it supports the use of walking in green space for those keen to maintain their mental health. This research is particularly prescient when one considers that anti-depressant prescribing is at an all time high in the UK. According to the mental health charity MIND, 31 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were written by general practitioners last year – up 6 per cent on last year’s tally.
MIND is saying that ‘ecotherapy’ has the potential to help millions of people with depression. Advantages include the fact that it is vastly cheaper than anti-depressant drugs, has no side-effects and is readily available on everyone’s doorstep. A MIND spokesman is quoted as saying: We’re not saying that ecotherapy can replace drugs but that the debate needs to be broadened.
There are a number of features about walking in nature which might have mood-elevating effects. For instance, I remember reading a couple of years ago about how volatile compounds released from trees can have positive effects on health. But of course another factor that is likely to play a part in the natural antidepressant effects of convening with nature is sunlight.
One effect that sunlight is the manufacture of vitamin D in the skin. Research shows has found that this nutrient actually has the potential to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) ” sometimes referred to as the ‘winter blues’ or ‘winter depression’. In one study, just five days of treatment with vitamin D (at a dose of 400 or 800 IU per day) was found to improve winter mood . Further evidence for the potential for vitamin D to alleviate SAD came from research in which individuals were treated with either 600 or 4000 IU of vitamin D each day for at least six months. Both dosages of vitamin D led to improvements in the participants’ mood and general well-being, with those on the higher dose of vitamin D benefiting the most .
There may, of course, be ways in which sunlight can improve mood that has nothing to do with vitamin D. Whatever the precise mechanism, though, the important thing here is the recent research on ‘ecotherapy’ reminds us elevating our mood could be as easy as taking a walk in the park.
1. Lansdowne AT, et al Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter.
Psychopharmacology (Berl). 1998;135(4):319-23.
2. Vieth R, et al. Randomized comparison of the effects of the vitamin D3 adequate intake versus 100 mcg (4000 IU) per day on biochemical responses and the wellbeing of patients. Nutrition Journal 2004;3:8 [http://www.nutritionj.com/content/3/1/8]
I don’t think you should trivialise depression. A walk in the park won’t get rid of real depression. If you’re feeling seriously depressed then even nature doesn’t cut it. If you’re feeling lonely then it can make it more painful that you have no one to share a beautiful scene with. Sometimes we don’t find ourselves validated by nature, eg. a pleasant summer scene can be alienating, when your heart feels wintery. I know these things because I’ve been there, though I’m not any longer.
One thing in nature that really seems to help is water. It’s as though it receives our emotions without throwing them back at us. It seems to be able to absorb them, particularly lakes. I would always recommend a walk near water, esp for those experiencing grief.
The sunlight thing is so true. The thing is, in England you can suffer from ‘winter depression’ all year long! I felt so much happier when we had that warm sunny period in March/April and I was sitting outside cafes a lot. Then again, the Pimms helped. 😉
I’m glad to see this piece. I’m passionate about the benefits of walking in the countryside. I took up country walking last September as an experiment. It quickly became a form of exercise that I love and I consider it to be part of my lifestyle now. It’s had a tremendously positive effect on my mood, health and confidence. I try to spend one day each weekend out walking and nothing will ever get me back to a gym. Nothing!
It works for me because it allows me to set my own goals and be my own judge and so builds confidence. The entire process of following a route demands concentration so I can’t spend a lot of time dwelling on problems. A day out keeps me away from the kitchen and has helped me to develop healthier eating patterns. I’m fitter. There’s also a spiritual aspect to the process which helps me feel balanced.
My only source of irritation is the implication in the study that just 30 minutes wandering under some trees and you’ll be happier. It segues too easily into this awful cultural disease of the quick fix. The past 18 months has taught me that anything worth having can not be achieved without a lot of patience, loving discipine and a realistic attitude towards change. Until we’re honest with people that change requires a lot of effort, and give them access to the support that enables that change to happen, then the pill popping culture will continue cos it’s less hassle.
The aim of this piece was to draw readers’ attention to a cheap, safe and broadly beneficial approach to better mental health. It was certainly not my intent to ‘trivialise depression’.