Are you suffering from nature deficit disorder?
Drop your weights. Step off the treadmill. It’s time to leave the gym – and by the nearest exit. In fact, to truly appreciate 2017’s biggest health trend you need to run for the hills. Welcome to friluftsliv: the concept of open-air living and the latest Scandi buzzword. Forget last year’s hygge, with its faux fur throws and candlelight, this is the cosiness backlash.
Roughly translated as “free, air, life”, friluftsliv is rooted in Norwegian culture and tells us that the key to well-being lies not just outdoors, but in a close connection to nature.
“The essence of frilufstliv is the simplicity with which people can engage with nature in a meaningful way,” says Borge Dahle in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way.
In many Scandinavian countries, engaging with nature is woven into daily life, from a young age. Even in preschool, children are frequently outdoors, while ski-trails, skating lakes and green spaces are maintained year round for public use.
“Friluftsliv is ingrained in family life here,” says Marie Hjorth-Johansen, 25, who lives in Oslo. “Almost everyone goes on a weekly Sondagstur [Sunday outing]. Time outdoors is seen as calming, a chance to reflect and reconnect.”
A survey of 10 countries, conducted by Persil in 2016, found that British children were among the most housebound in the world. Parents estimated that their children spent twice as much time on screens inside as they did playing outside. Little wonder there is increasing concern over the impact of our estrangement from nature in the UK.
The term nature deficit disorder (NDD) was coined by the American author Richard Louv to describe the negative effects on health when we are “alienated” from the outdoors. It’s not a medical diagnosis, but similarities can be drawn between the symptoms Louv identifies as a result of NDD – diminished senses and attention difficulties, for example – and those of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which include a lack of concentration, lethargy and low mood.
Scientists continue to debate the evidence around SAD, with a recent study from Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, claiming that the idea we become depressed because of lack of sunlight is a myth.
Yet some estimates suggest that 20 per cent of people in the UK experience some form of “winter blues”, with GPs often recommending light boxes and even cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment.
But could it be that, instead of being sensitive to changes in the seasons, we’re actually suffering from a disconnection with nature?
After all, there’s little better for the soul as stepping outside, feeling a cool breeze brush your cheeks and inhaling lungfuls of fresh air. And then there’s the kind of deep, nourishing sleep that can only follow a country walk.
Psychiatrist Dr Norman Rosenthal, who first described SAD, attributes these positive feelings to sunlight. “When we’re outside, bright light coming through the eyes boosts the secretion of serotonin, while UV rays on the skin stimulate endorphins. All of this contributes to an improvement in mood.”
Science tells us there are numerous other benefits to being outdoors. British Dietetic Association guidelines say that standing in direct sunlight two or three times a week for at least 15 minutes will deliver the vitamin D needed for optimum bone and muscle health.
Mental health professionals are also acknowledging the significance of our relationship with nature. Following a report by the charity Mind, ecotherapy – where sufferers engage in activities such as gardening and conservation work – has been recognised as an effective treatment for depression. Mind’s survey of 12,000 people found that 69 per cent experienced significant increases in well-being and 76 per cent had mood improvements. Participants reported significant decreases in anger, confusion, depression and tension after taking part in an outdoors session. There is hope that ecotherapy will become more commonplace, with 36 per cent of GPs saying they would refer patients to a project if one was available.
Dr Rosenthal also recognises the role that nature can play in our emotional well-being. “Being indoors creates a world that is compartmentalised from the changing weather, landscapes and feelings. In contrast, being outside enriches our lives. Experiencing the unpredictability of the weather – the wind in your hair or an unexpected rainfall – adds variety to our lives. Smells evoke memories and thoughts, and connecting with nature allows us to escape monotony,” he says.
The good news is that there are many ways to tackle NDD. “It can be as simple as planning regular walks around a local park, or going on a picnic, or learning how to garden in containers by the back door,” says Richard Louv.
Of course, while all this is readily accessible in the countryside, urban landscapes pose a difficulty. According to the most recent census, just 17.6 per cent of England’s population lives in rural areas, though the Office for National Statistics predicts this figure will rise by six per cent by 2025 as we increasingly choose to leave cities for the country.
Several studies have been carried out on the negative effects of busy urban spaces on our cognitive health. A decade-long study of 6.6?million people, recently published in The Lancet, found that one in 10 dementia deaths in people living within 50 yards of a busy road could be attributed to fumes and noise. Another, published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that urban landscapes produce cognitive fatigue, as city dwellers work their brains harder to overcome constant stimulation. The same study pinpointed improved performance on attention-demanding tasks after time spent in natural environments.
Movements are, however, being made to encourage people living in urban settings to spend more time in green spaces. The Great Outdoor Gym Company, suppliers of fitness equipment across the UK, has had an increase in demand, selling 190 gyms in 2016 compared with 87 in 2014. Membership of wild swimming clubs has risen sharply, and the Forestry Commission England has said that it will open up its woodlands after dark to allow visitors to stargaze and commune with nature by night.
Meghan Kemp, 33, has two children and lives in Folkestone, in Kent. She uses outdoor gym facilities at her local park twice a week. “It’s more like a day out,” she says. “It’s free and available all hours. My kids love being in the park while I’m doing a workout.” Not even the British weather can deter her. “On days it’s raining, I just get the buggy cover on, put wellies on my eldest and we’re off. It’s great – they’re always worn out when we get home,” she says.
So, whether you work out outdoors, schedule a Sunday family outing, or tend your vegetable patch once a week, friluftsliv has set the tone for 2017. It’s time to rediscover your relationship with nature – no faux fur blankets required.
Four ways to get back to nature:
- Small steps: Skip public transport and walk to work. Swap your spin class for an outdoor gym session. You don’t have to live in the countryside to bring nature into your daily routine.
- Whatever the weather: Scandinavians don’t run for cover on rainy days. Embrace the elements, throw on a duvet coat and find joy in even the gloomiest of forecasts – it’s about changing your mindset.
- Make a plan: National Trust or English Heritage membership sitting in your wallet? Historic houses often come with equally impressive grounds. Write a list of which properties you want to visit, and use it as a chance to commune with nature as well as castles.
- Embrace the indoors: Long walk followed by a cosy Sunday roast? Run around the park, then a relaxing bath? The promise of heading back indoors can make the outdoors all the more rewarding. After all, as the Scandinavians know, life is about balance.
The Telegraph, London
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