VENTURING OUT in the great outdoors is a “wonder drug” in the battle to boost mental well-being, new research has shown.
The benefits of a breath of fresh air on physical health have been well-documented but now a team of international researchers has found rambles in wild surroundings have a positive effect on people suffering from depression and stress.
Scientists from Scotland, England and the United States found individuals who had recently endured major “life events” such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one, marriage breakdown or unemployment experienced a noticeable mood boost from outdoor group walks.
Aberdeen-based environmental psychologist Katherine Irvine, a senior researcher at the James Hutton Institute, who worked on the study, said: “We have all at one point or another been told that ‘getting outside’ or ‘taking a walk’ are good for us.
“Our findings provide further insight into how this might be beneficial for our mood and for our mental wellbeing.
“We found that group walks in nature not only improved someone’s daily positive emotions but also helped reduce the effects of stressful life events.
“Scotland is a country of such beautiful natural environments and is undertaking important initiatives to bring nature into our urban areas.
“This study suggests making the time to take a walk in those natural areas – be they a local park or further afield – could be a wonderful stress-buster.”
It is estimated that neuropsychiatric illness accounts for 14 per cent of the global burden of disease, with more years of life lost to it and its effects than to cardiovascular disease or cancer.
Leading causes of disability worldwide include depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, bipolar depression and dementia.
Almost one million people worldwide die each year as a result of suicide, which ranks as the third most common cause of death among young people.
In Scotland, there were 830 probable suicides in 2012, up from around 650 in the mid-1970s. Males account for around three-quarters.
There has been a continuous increase in the number of prescriptions for antidepressants over the past decade, rising by 53.3 per cent to 5.2 million.
“With the increase in mental ill-health and physical inactivity in the developed world, it is important to find accessible, relatively simple ways to help people improve their long-term quality of life and well-being,” Ms Irvine said.
“This study suggests joining a walking group could be a non-pharmacological approach to helping people cope with stress and perhaps depression.”
The researchers were surprised to find the social element of group walks had no impact on wellbeing, suggesting the improvement was down to the natural environment.
The study followed 1,991 participants from a Walking for Health programme, run by Macmillan Cancer Support and the Ramblers outdoor group.
Programme manager Jackie Hayhoe said: “We’ve seen first-hand walking is a wonder drug with huge benefits for your physical and mental health.”