In this blog post, I’m writing about why I find it so helpful to spend time in nature as part of my fibromyalgia toolkit. Intuitively, I’m aware that I always feel so much better after spending time outdoors, no matter the weather. It helps me keep the anxiety and depression, which are constantly hovering in the background for me, much more in check than would otherwise be the case.
But there’s also an increasing amount of research which backs up the fact that being outdoors in nature is good for us. A 2018 meta-analysis conducted by the University of East Anglia1 sought to quantify the effects of time spent in green spaces across a range of health outcomes. The researchers concluded that time spent in green spaces benefits health in a wide range of ways. For example, correlations between increased exposure to green space and reduced incidence of stroke, asthma, and coronary heart disease were found across the board.
In 2019, Natural England2 reported that well-being could be significantly be enhanced by spending just two hours in nature each week. The study concluded that higher levels of good health and well being were much more likely to be reported by those who spent at least two hours per week in nature versus those who don’t usually visit a green space in a typical week. Interestingly, the study found that those two hours could consist of several shorter trips or one longer one and that benefits could be seen visiting any type of green space, be it rural or urban.
Time spent outdoors in a natural setting has also been found to improve mental health conditions by reducing anxiety, stress and depression although the reasons for this aren’t yet fully understood. In 2018, Harvard Health3 reported on a study whereby brain activity of individuals who had walked for 90 minutes in a built-up area versus individuals who had done the same but in a green environment was compared. The results showed that those who had spent time in nature demonstrated lower activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is significant because it is a part of the brain which can malfunction in depressed people, playing non-stop negative thoughts on repeat, so any reduction in activity here can only be a good thing for those of us who struggle with depression.
Time outdoors also helps us to obtain sufficient levels of vitamin D, which is created by our bodies when skin is in direct sunlight. In the UK, between early spring and early autumn, sunlight will generally provide us with sufficient vitamin D. Amongst other benefits, Vitamin D is vital in helping calcium to be absorbed which contributes towards healthy, strong bones. Those of us with fibromyalgia who also suffer with anxiety and depression have a higher than average chance of being vitamin D deficient4 and this presents another compelling reason to enjoy the great outdoors.
More specifically, time spent in forests has its own series of health benefits. “Shinrin-yoku” is a Japanese concept which is loosely translated as forest bathing and it’s something which has been featured in the press a lot lately. Essentially it refers to immersing oneself in a forest environment either walking slowly, sitting or even lying down, absorbing the elements of the forest, tuning into your surroundings, using all five senses. For example, you might focus on hearing the bird song or the rustle of leaves in the wind, touching the bark of a tree, breathing in and tasting the fresh forest air, smelling the decaying leaves and observing a fern in detail.
Trees release organic compounds called phytoncides which boast both antibacterial and antifungal elements. When we are exposed to these and breathe them in, then certain types of white blood cells increase in number and can boost our immune function. As well as being beneficial for helping participants to slow down and unwind in today’s ever more hectic world, research into the advantages of forest bathing has shown that it can lower blood pressure, improve cognition and memory (so great for fibro fog!) and also decrease levels of cortisol (a marker of stress). Such are the benefits of forest bathing that it has become an integral part of the Japanese health care programme5.
As well as being enjoyable, time outdoors can certainly benefit us in terms of helping manage some of the symptoms we experience with fibromyalgia as well as offering a wide range of non-fibro related benefits. So, what better reason to get outdoors and embrace nature?
1 – https://people.uea.ac.uk/en/publications/the-health-benefits-of-the-great-outdoors-a-systematic-review-and-metaanalysis-of-greenspace-exposure-and-health-outcomes(28e21d11-926c-44a7-8a00-fab739810e9a).html