• Sandy Miller

Nature and mental health: a scientific justification for dropping everything and coming skiing

I was very fortunate to have a very good education. My school was a state school, but it was a good school, and it helped me to gain a place at the best university in the UK for my chosen subject (Sports Science at Loughborough). Despite all this there was 1 lesson in particular that I never learnt, despite numerous opportunities, and that lesson was to not leave work until the last minute.


Regardless of how many university all nighters I did, working desperately to finish before the next morning’s deadline, the vows to avoid the same scenario for my next coursework never lasted beyond the point when I made the deadline and it was all ok again.


As such it should have come as no surprise to find that when I was preparing for my International Mountain Leader I fell into the same trap. In my defence I had looked at the work I needed to do, and I just wildly misjudged the amount of time that it would take me. I knew that for the three days before my exam started my wife was taking our children to visit family, and so my plan was to use these three days in a peaceful apartment to do everything, but a combination of a failing internet connection and my misjudgement of the amount of time I needed left me feeling stressed and frantic.


A day exploring Samoëns was a much more fun way of preparing for my IML exam than tackling the pile of paperwork I had waiting for me at home.

One of the tasks that I had to do before the exam was to prepare a couple of 10 minute presentations that would be delivered to the rest of my exam group. By the end of the second day I had prepared 1 presentation, but I did not have an idea for a second, and I had a lot of other work to get done as well on the last day before the exam started. That evening, after working manically through the day, and endless fights with our internet connection, I realised that I was no longer thinking straight and I felt a level of stress that was making me feel sick. At this point I decided that I needed to get out and clear my head and so I went for a run. Now it might seem like using my limited time to go for a run when I had so much work to do would be a waste of time, but I came back after just 40 minutes feeling so revitalised, and at peace. Not only that, but I had decided on the subject of my second presentation - Mental Health in the Mountains.


At some point towards spring I will write another blog about the benefits of hiking and running on mental health, but as we are approaching winter I thought that I would focus on getting outside into nature, and how this simply being outside can help our mental wellbeing. If we are spending our work life inside, and the evenings are get colder and darker, it can become quite tricky to spend much time outside during the week, and the fact is that your neighbours might start to worry if they see you wrapped in a sleeping bag sitting on your terrace on a dark winter’s evening. However, if you have stress in your life spending time outside in nature can be very helpful to your mental wellbeing (and skiing can help you forget about the cold).


It may be cold and dark if you are down in the valley and sitting inside, but if you make the effort to get out it might surprise you.

The trouble with stress is that it can be self perpetuating. When you are stressed the hormone cortisol is released, which in high levels and over extended periods can be poisonous to brain cells, and can reduce the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is important for memory, but it also has an impact on controlling stress. As such high levels of stress can damage a part of the brain that helps control stress, which creates a dangerous spiral.


In 1982 Japan introduced the concept of forest bathing into their national public health programme. Over 8 years they studied the effects of people being prescribed time in nature, and they found that just 30 minutes in nature could help reduce the levels of cortisol, as well as reducing other stress factors in the brain. In fact it was also found to have a positive impact on the immune system.


Forest bathing, Verbier style.

Many studies since have backed up the principle that spending time in nature helps reduce our stress levels, and our levels of cortisol. There was even 1 study which proved that just being exposed to scents from nature could reduce stress levels. Studies have also shown that spending time in nature reduces mental fatigue, with the hypothesis being that while we are in nature most of the stimuli that we are exposed to are not as frantic and manic as they are when we are in the city and so our brains can relax more. Another UK based study in 2016 found that doing activities in nature could reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and studies with adolescents have shown that spending time in nature can increase self-efficacy (a type of self confidence or self belief), mindfulness, subjective wellbeing and reduce stress.


In fact another recent UK based study found that even living in areas of cities that have more nature (e.g. tree lined streets) can reduce the incidence of depression by around 5%.


In 1984 Edward O. Wilson published his Biophilia hypothesis, which put very simply suggests that the need to connect with nature is hardwired into our biology. Whether this is true or not is difficult to say, but the fact is that spending time in nature has many different benefits, some of which are quite surprising.


For example in China 2 different studies (1 with students, and 1 with the elderly) found that spending time in nature helped reduce inflammation in the body. Another study found that post surgery less pain medication was needed if people were also exposed to sunlight, and in Singapore it was even found that spending time outside helped reduce the incidence of short sightedness in children.


Amazingly there is even evidence to suggest that nature can impact our values systems, with a shift towards more importance being placed on relationships and away from social pressures and material success.


Could being in places like this make us all more altruistic?

With all this evidence it is clear that making the effort to get outside, and spend time in nature, is worth it, even when it is cold and dark in the evenings.


Now at this point I have to be honest. Despite searching long and hard I cannot find any studies that conclusively prove that a ski lesson (or a session snowshoeing) with Mountain Relish is the vital element when trying to access the benefits of nature, but I promise that if you make the effort to book some time with me I will do my best to help you get the most out of your time in the mountains.


Enjoying the outdoors when it is cold can be great fun, and good for your mental wellbeing.