World Environment Day special: Wellbeing is a walk in the park

If we spend time with her, Mother Nature rewards us by improving our mental health and physical wellbeing

young woman reading in natureYou have spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon walking around a mall, window-shopping. Although you have hardly worked up a sweat, thanks to the air-conditioning, you feel as though you have done your body some good—indoor 'exercise' beats no exercise. And surveying displays of fascinating merchandise has calmed your mind, or so you think!

Well, sorry to have to say this, but you could probably have used your time better. Allow me to explain why.

A few years ago, Mind, a leading UK mental health charity, commissioned the University of Essex [UK] to conduct two studies to investigate the role of eco-therapy in our lives.Eco-therapy, or green therapy, includes activities performed outdoors in green surroundings, like walking or gardening. This also includes the time spent outdoors seemingly inactively yet engaged with nature—say watching the setting sun, or just sitting in a garden and deep breathing.

The results of the studies are revealing, to say the least. One study compared the effects of an outdoor walk in a country park, with an indoor walk around a shopping centre, on self-esteem, depression and tension. No less than nine out of 10 people said that outdoor walk had boosted their self-esteem, compared to only 17 per cent for the indoor walk. About 44 per cent of people experienced reduced levels of self-esteem following the indoor shopping centre walk.

What's more, almost three-quarters [71 per cent] of the people who took part in both activities said the outdoor walk had improved their depression and tension and lessened their fatigue. Against this, feeling of depression increased for 22 per cent of the participants and 33 per cent expressed no change in their level of depression following the indoor shopping centre walk. 50 per cent said their feelings of tension had increased after the shopping centre walk.

Green exercise and wellbeing

The second study looked at the link between green exercise and mental and physical wellbeing, comes in."I feel better about myself and have a sense of achievement.""I am more relaxed, have better focus of mind, greater coordination and greater self-esteem.""My fitness has improved, I feel refreshed and alive."

These are actual comments of some of the 108 people who participated in the study. Not surprisingly, 94 per cent of the people reported better mental health. 90 per cent of those surveyed commented that taking part in green exercise activities had benefited their physical health.

The outcome suggests that there is a strong case for eco-therapy to be combined with the conventional drug or psychological therapy prescribed to persons suffering from depression. To add to its benefits, eco-therapy is a natural treatment, besides being cost-effective, easily accessible and posing no side-effects.

Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counsellor Veena Chakravarthy endorses using eco-therapy. "Green is perceived to be a colour symbolising stability, balance, love, self control, and harmony," she says, "The colour gives out calm vibrations, thus relaxing the nervous system and muscles. It reduces palpitations as well as the frequency of occurrence of panic attacks. Emotionally disturbed people and those suffering from anxiety and stress should be recommended morning walks to bond with nature."

The role of green

Eco-therapy is not just about the colour green. It's about nature enabling an inner connection with the self, and thus finding balance, guidance, and healing. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is known to have remarked, "Nature cures, not the physician." Evidently, he was in tune with the healing power of nature. Up until a few centuries ago, health practitioners were by and large aware of nature's inherent ability to heal. Mental health institutions were often set in gardens and natural landscapes. Nowadays however, most cities have become concrete jungles with very few patches of green. Hard-pressed for wide open spaces, counsellors and psychotherapists have moved into little cubicles.

Acknowledging the role of green in mental health, Dr Bharati Chawathe, founder of 'Spring' [a counselling and psychotherapy centre in Mumbai] has gone out of her way to ensure that her clinic has smatterings of green for the benefit of her patients.

"Patients confess to feeling calmer as soon as they walk into the clinic. Even a simple act like 'hugging a tree' works for patients who suffer from pain. A person who is hurting needs to start the inner process of healing. This doesn't happen as much by talking to a therapist as it does by connecting with nature. After all, how much 'pain' can you talk about? Eco-therapy is indeed, a valid treatment option for patients with mental health issues, even when used along with a medication regimen," she opines.

It is important to recognise that eco-therapy benefits everyone. So even if you are of sound mental health, do not disregard the additional health benefits that would come your way if you traded an indoor activity with an outdoor hobby.

As Julie Bennett, coordinator of a UK-based horticulture and recreation project aimed at providing the surrounding community green exercise describes, "Digging, lifting, planting and pruning are all great exercise, but people don't think about it as exercise. Here, you can spend half an hour digging potatoes—you get the exercise and you come away with some lovely organic vegetables but it doesn't feel like exercise. It's certainly not as intimidating as a gym."

'Green' for everyone

While city-dwellers may despair at the lack of an opportunity to meditate on a mountain or walk through a sunflower field, the beauty of eco-therapy is that it also works in small doses, as well as at the most subtle of levels.

To understand this association better, consider the findings of research conducted at a Swedish psychiatric hospital that measured the vandalism to paintings on walls over a 15-year period. It found that damage was only ever inflicted on abstract paintings. However hard it may seem to believe, there were no recorded attacks on landscape paintings.

Chakravarthy explains this phenomenon by saying that even being exposed to visualisations of nature and natural surroundings has a calming effect on the mind. "Natural sceneries make us peaceful and encourage us to start loving ourselves and believing in ourselves," she says.

Another study has shown that a window view of nature boosts recovery from surgery, leads to a reduced use of health-care services among prison inmates and improves work performance and job satisfaction.

Irrespective of where you live, there is always something you can do to gain the benefits of eco-therapy. You could fly a kite, start a community roof gardening project, or take a walk in a nearby park, all the while paying attention to seasonal changes. Even if you are confined to an apartment, you could meditate in a green balcony.

In fact, in a paper titled 'Seminar for Health Care Using Green Therapy', Iwamoto Masaru of the Nishinippon Institute of Technology, Japan, emphasises green therapy as a natural and useful method to alleviate mental stress associated with the socially complicated relationships of modern life. He describes green therapy as including healthy walking, gardening, aroma therapy and bathing. All these methods act gently on the brain and help control the internal autonomic nervous, endocrine and immunity systems.

As and when possible, you could also choose a natural landscape over a cityscape. Dr Chawathe always recommends that her patients vacation at natural resorts, instead of getting trapped in the delights of fast-paced cities. After all, since centuries ago, people have instinctively chosen to visit resorts set amid nature to recharge their batteries. They have done so, not because they were prescribed 'time out in sylvan surroundings,' but because of the experience of total relaxation associated with being in the midst of nature. During the course of day-to-day living, people have also turned to outdoor activities to vent their pent-up energies and in the process, also their stress and worldly cares.

Why does eco-therapy work?

Bernie Siegel is a well known physician who broke new ground with his monumental book Love, Medicine, and Miracles, in which he explored the powerful role the mind can play in fighting illness. These words of his suggest the magic in eco-therapy: "If you watch how nature deals with adversity, continually renewing itself, you can't help but learn."If truth be told, observing nature's inherent strength unfold as it copes with challenge and regenerates itself on an ongoing basis, even after a disaster, is perhaps one of the best lessons in growth and survival.

The infinite circle of life emanating from decay, destruction and death imparts hope and a sense of constancy, as well as puts loss into perspective. Simply put, the message imparted is, 'it is never the end, only a new beginning.' For people caught up in competitive study and work scenarios, nature serves as a source of energy to press on. And on.

 
Why do green exercises?

The Mind commissioned studies also reveal why people enjoy green exercise activities:

  • The activity helps forge memorable social connections as well as a communion with nature.
  • The colours, sounds, fresh air and sometimes, rush of adrenalin arising from the experience of risk, stimulate the senses.
  • The physical activity activates an inner 'feel good' factor.
  • The activity is a chance to escape from the stress of daily living.
 
10 tips to go green

children planting a small podWe all face challenges, big and small. But when it comes to Mother Nature, we sometimes mistakenly assume that the only adversities she faces are huge natural disasters. Of course, catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis that have far-reaching consequences must require her to invest a lot of energy in recovering. But if you think of it, usurping even a fragment of nature is a loss, however small. Consequently, many people believe that nature is fighting a losing battle in cities.

Every new suburb creates impinges on green cover and puts pressure on scarce natural resources. Existing green areas are slowly shrinking, birds have less space to live and sources of fresh water are drying up.

But you can make a difference. This year, give a new meaning to the World Environment Day [June 5] and the UN World Day to Combat Desertification [June 17]. Now that you know the direct benefits of eco-therapy, you can go all out to celebrate June as a green month, and in the process, enhance your family's exposure to green. Simultaneously, take satisfaction from the fact that every effort you make, however small, will also help the planet.

Even these simplest of measures will make a difference.

  1. Plant a tree in your nearby garden or building compound.
  2. Encourage sparrows and other small birds to co-exist in trees around your compound. Do they have access to water? If not, create a bird bath.
  3. Walk short distances; avoid using a motor vehicle as it adds to pollution.
  4. Consume less energy. Switch to LED lights.
  5. Maximise your use of daylight.
  6. As far as possible, switch off outdoor lighting at night. Nature needs to sleep too!
  7. Create a green niche in your balcony or near a window, if you do not have easy access to open green spaces. Visit a nursery and choose a few evergreen plants that are easy to maintain. Use herbal insecticides to keep these bug-free.
  8. Switch to re-usable jute bags. Avoid using plastic ones.
  9. Reduce paper consumption. Don't print documents unless necessary. For personal letters and cards, switch to aesthetic recycled paper or email.
  10. Segregate recyclable waste. Do not litter.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

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