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Instantly calmer: power of the outdoors

Outdoor activity may not always replace pills, but, says a new book, it can do wonders for your mental health

11 June, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

HAMPSTEAD Ladies Pond is described as one of nature’s most “powerful antidepressants” in an excellent new book celebrating the health-giving effects of outdoor activities.

Many Londoners are blessed with plenty of green space, says assistant editor of The Spectator Isabel Hardman in The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind.

Isabel, who suffers from intermittent depression and anxiety following a mental health breakdown, admits that outdoor activities including walking, running, cycling and cold water swimming may not always replace the necessary pill or medicine for her condition. But they can often improve the mood.

She praises pioneering 19th century social worker Octavia Hill, who through her campaigns helped save many of the capital’s open spaces, including Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields.

Isabel also celebrates modern green activists like those in the Finsbury Park area, where a Veg Street scheme resulted in more than 50 residents growing vegetables in their front gardens.

Talking about her visits to the Ladies Pond, Isabel says: “Every woman seems proud of what her body is capable of, regardless of what shape or size it is. The Ponds are the antidote to modern swimming-costume culture. No one cares about how taut their abs are, but instead frets about whether they are sufficiently acclimatised to swim when ice appears on the surface.”

And it’s here that Isabel meets women like Hannah, in her 60s, who says the water has an “immediately calming” effect, even when she has left the house feeling dreadful. She then finds herself “on a high” as she walks away from the pond down the wooded lane that leads across the Heath and back to the world. Hannah explains: “I feel motivated, and wanting to get on with the day.”

At the pond Isabel also meets Lucy, in her early 20s, who works as an accountant. As well as pond swimming, she also swims in the sea.

Isabel Hardman

“She, too, says the experience has been ‘transformative’ for the psychosis, depression and anxiety that she has required hospital treatment for over the past four years,” Isabel writes.

Interestingly, Isabel is not a fan of meditation, the biggest mental health trend of the last decade. “I could never really get to grips with it. Everyone, from my psychiatrist to my friends who’ve battled mental health problems, recommended it. I’m sure to people who like lying still, it’s great… but it really didn’t seem to make any difference to my state of mind.”

Now she uses botany as her mindfulness – “and it works”.

Isabel writes that rare orchids helped her recover. “Hunting for wild flowers of all sorts became an important discipline for me. I had been a keen gardener all my life, and had also spent many a childhood hour poring over wild-flower books, learning the names for coltsfoot, stitchwort and lady’s smock.”

At Queen’s Wood in Highgate, thrumming with birdsong, she attends a weekly forest-therapy session.

“We are sitting in a circle in a wooden cabin, our phones off. Claire, who runs the event, suggests that this is a time for us to connect with ourselves and explains that, during the session, she will help us experience nature better.”

Isabel describes “walking without any purpose” and being drawn to a hornbeam which was clearly struggling to make its way in the shade of a mature oak.

There are also keep fit events starting at convenient times of day that combine running with mental health care.

Run Talk Run, for example, started as a simple weekly event in London, and has now spread around the world. Novices are actively encouraged, and the run is billed as one where it’s safe to talk about mental health.

Its founder Jessica Robson suffered from depression, anxiety but disliked therapy sessions, finding that she “clammed up” when sitting in the counsellor’s room. But she noticed that she found it much easier to open up when she was running.

Runners are encouraged to talk to one another about why they are there and what they’re going through.

“Friendships spring up in the way that they do in any running group,” Isabel writes, “but because there is honesty from the beginning about why someone is running, people find it easier to ask for support far earlier than they would when just making ‘normal’ friends.”

There are local Run Talk Run groups in Finsbury Park, Camden, Angel, Euston and Soho.

  • The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind. By Isabel Hardman, Atlantic Books, £16.99

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