Why you should try a ‘nature prescription’ for optimum health

Countless studies from around the world have affirmed that being outside can help fight depession, combat stress, lower blood pressure, improve memory and decrease your chances of developing cancer - among a myriad other physical and mental health benefits.
Exercise in green spaces is ideal for promoting health and wellbeingExercise in green spaces is ideal for promoting health and wellbeing
Exercise in green spaces is ideal for promoting health and wellbeing

And if you can get to a local park, beauty spot or journey through rolling countryside, even better, because researchers have found walking through green spaces can reduce cortisol levels - responsible for increased stress levels - more than moving through urban environments.

‘Green exercise’ has been found to improve self-esteem and mood and helps reduce anxiety, as well as zapping mental fatigue and improving concentration; walking in nature is a therapy with no known side effects, is readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost.

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In 2018, NHS Shetland, a government-run hospital system in Scotland, began allowing doctors at ten medical practices to write nature prescriptions that promote outdoor activities as a routine part of patient care. And in recent years, organisations with the goal of getting people outside for their health have proliferated in the US.

Covid has kept us mostly home-bound, but ironically, according to a survey by Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland, an organisation whose aim is to improve access to walking and cycling trails across the province, nearly half (47 per cent) of the population here are spending more free time outdoors than they did this time last year, with 51 per cent saying they intend to continue incorporating time outdoors into their routines as lockdown measures are eased.

And they are already seeing the benefits.

The survey of 1,487 respondents undertaken earlier this month found that 89 per cent of respondents reported that time spent outdoors during lockdown made them feel calm, relaxed, refreshed, and revitalised; 84 per cent felt physically healthier or fitter; and 79 per cent felt closer to nature.

Dawson Stelfox MBE, chair of Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland, said: “These are challenging times, and the coronavirus and lockdown has given us all a huge wake-up call. We are delighted that the public are engaging more with their local spaces and places during this difficult time, a reflection of how important the outdoors is for us all. This survey highlights the clear appetite for the public to get outdoors from their own doorstep and reap the mental and physical health benefits of being outside.”

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Dawson, a conservation architect from Belfast who became the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest when he led an expedition there in 1993, is a committed nature-lover who would like to see infrastructure improved to open more green spaces to the public.

“We know from studies undertaken right across the world that having access to the outdoors is a massively positive thing for physical and mental health. and lockdown meant a lot of people were going outside more for daily exercise because they basically had nothing else to do.

“So for many people getting outside might be a new thing and we would really want to see people continue this trend as social distancing measures are eased.

“We want to see the countryside open out more so that people can follow new trails and discover the joy of being in nature.

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“We are encouraging people to walk in the areas close to where they live and have set up a Community Trail Network. We’ve been developing these with particularly Newry, Mourne and Down Councils and other statutory bodies.

“But we will work with other councils too. Walk NI, a website which we run, gives you ideas for walks or off-road cycling trails that you can do in your local area.

“Improving the infrastructure to allow people to follow different local routes - we see this as very important.”

Colette Stewart, 45, from east Belfast, feels doctors should be more ready in some cases to “prescribe people a pair of trainers instead of tablets”, so that they can enjoy restorative, quality time in the great outdoors.

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She and her five-year-old son, Harry, who suffers from learning difficulties, and his sister Emily, 10, go for daily walks and trips to Belmont Park near their east Belfast home. Since lockdown they have cherished time spent outside.

“We have always been active and being outdoors has always been important to us as a family. We would head off to places like Mount Stewart and Stormont Park and Harry especially just loves to be outside. If he is stuck indoors he gets frustrated and upset and his mood will dip. The beginning of lockdown was therefore very difficult, especially the first six to eight weeks when we were really restricted.

“But lockdown led us to appreciate our local park, which is a real treasure on our doorstep with this amazing wooded area. We began to appreciate what we have here.

“Being outside makes both Harry and his sister and I happy. I think we need to see improved access to green spaces which just lift people’s mood and make you feel better in so many ways. When Harry is outside he always smiles. As lockdown eases we are getting out as much as we can and do a mixture of walking and running.”

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Jeff Aiken, 62, from Comber, has developed a deeper love of meandering walks since lockdown, usually heading out with his partner Anne Campbell.

“I’ve always done a bit of walking, golfing and playing sport, but since lockdown my partner Anne and I have been out on longer walks where there is beautiful scenery, down around Strangford Lough. We plan where we are going to go in advance and stay as far as possible away from the main roads. We’ve discovered so many different trails near Castle Espie, places we had never been to before. When the sunshine comes out it is wonderful.

“We intend to keep walking because it’s so good for our health and wellbeing. Fresh air, scenery, sheep out in fields, seeing flowers - there is nothing like it.”

The Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland survey also found that while there was an increase in people getting outdoors, 44 per cent of those surveyed reported having to walk on roads and roadside pavements due to a lack of off-road trails in their local area, posing a safety issue. The findings highlight the need for more local off-road trails in urban and rural areas to ensure the public can enjoy the outdoors safely and securely.

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The survey also reveals that the benefits of being outdoors are not being enjoyed equally. Of those people who have been enjoying access to the outdoors every day (63 per cent), participation is lowest in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland (41 per cent).

Dawson added: “The findings also highlight a clear need for more local off-road trails and support to encourage and empower those in deprived areas to participate in outdoor activity, such as walking. Moving forward we in Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland will certainly focus on building support to address this issue. It is evidently clear that things will never be the same again, and we will work to ensure that our ministers and departments are well informed of the public need in order to ensure our outdoors are more accessible and encouraging for the public to access and enjoy safely.”

Established in 1999, Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland is a not-for-profit organisation with the vision ‘To create a happier, healthier society where enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors improves wellbeing’.

Dawson, who is a keen walker near his home in Lambeg and enjoys mountaineering and rock climbing in the Mournes, adds: “It was a definite thrill for me reaching the peak of Mount Everest, but you don’t need to go that far to be exhilarated by the outdoors. Northern Ireland is full of so many beautiful green landscapes to explore.”

For more information on Outdoor Recreation visit outdoorrecreactionni.com To find scenic trails in your area visit walkni.com.

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