Two studies commissioned by mental health charity Mind have shown that outdoor activities have a significant positive effect on people suffering from various forms of mental distress, including depression.
Mind commissioned the University of Essex carry out the studies, both of which investigated the benefits of ecotherapy on mental health. One of the studies examined the effect of environment on the effectiveness of exercise on mental wellbeing. This study involved participants going for a ‘green walk’ around a country park in Essex, and also for a walk in an indoor shopping centre. The results were quite marked, with respondents reporting increased self-esteem, reduced tension, reduced anger and decreased levels of depression after the green walk. In contrast, the indoor walk reduced self-esteem and increased depression in some subjects.
These results seem to indicate that something as simple as being outdoors in a green environment could be an effective treatment for depression. Of course I am very interested in this study because I am always fascinated by alternative natural treatments for chronic conditions.
But even more interesting for me is the mechanism of action. How does ecotherapy work? What’s going on in the body when we go outside and get close to nature? There must be something other than the release of endorphins from exercising, because the study examined the effects of indoor exercise and found no similar benefit. Is there something else about being outside that benefits the body? Is it the fresh air , or does the colour green light reflected by foliage affect the brain in some way? Does walking on uneven ground stimulate proprioceptors in our muscles in some way that makes us feel better? Or is it the ‘energy’ of the natural world that stimulates and invigorates our own energy system to make us feel more vibrant? It’s probably a combination of a variety of things, which we are yet to discover.
I am very glad to see research like this. ‘Ecotherapy’ is almost entirely free and allows people suffering from mental distress to take some control over their condition, and is a valid alternative to the antidepressant drugs that are so often prescribed.
The full report can be viewed here.