Alex Staniforth is a YHA ambassador and co-founder of Mind Over Mountains, a charity dedicated to restoring mental health through enjoying nature. Here, he shares seven tips for the year ahead.
The idea of nature as a route to wellbeing is hardly novel. Most of us can relate to the stress-easing, mood-boosting process of being outside, which isn’t really surprising considering it’s where we are intrinsically designed to be. We know it works. With this in mind, I co-founded Mind Over Mountains, a charity to restore mental health through outdoor experiences. We do this by combining hill-walking and mindfulness in UK National Parks, offering an unhurried, unpressured setting to walk and talk with professional coaches, counsellors and mountain leaders.
1. Get to the start
For some, the hardest part can simply be getting to the start point. Reaching the top of a mountain under your own steam can spark a life-changing boost of confidence. When dwarfed by mountains, sweeping valleys and coastline, we’re better able to break negative thought cycles, put worries back in perspective, and address problems in a more optimistic way.
2. Trust the science
The science is already stacking up on the benefits of exercise for reducing our risk of depression and other mental health conditions. Add wild places and fresh air to the endorphins and the Vitamin D from sunlight, and you get an even more powerful combination. Even 10 minutes of ‘green exercise’ has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol, and boost self-esteem and mood.
3. Practice mindfulness
It’s hard not to feel more hopeful when watching the spring blossoms emerge, listening to birdsong, or noticing the unassuming routine of sunrise. In our walks we offer guided mindfulness sessions to help us practice this lost art of taking notice in our hectic lives. It’s something we can all practice, just by slowing down on our walks and concentrating on the small things in nature, or even routine daily tasks like waiting for a bus or going to the shop.
4. Walk with people
Shared outdoor experiences help us build our resilience, manage stress, and embrace life challenges that could otherwise throw us off course. At Mind Over Mountains we find that walking side by side in the open encourages people to open up more readily, much more than they perhaps would if they were face-to-face in a room. And by sharing these challenges with others, we may go up the hill as strangers, but we come back down as friends. If joining a local walking or Ramblers group feels daunting, why not invite a friend or family member or look on Facebook community groups?
5. Go out in all weathers
No two days in nature are ever the same. Sometimes we enjoy dazzling blue skies from a mountain summit, sunlight creeping through forest canopies and the calming trickle of streams. But we also get the pea soup visibility, wringing rain out of our gloves, and shouting over howling wind. In these moments we learn to find appreciation and gratitude for the small things even when the clouds come in: gnarly twisted trees on the Kinder Scout plateau, singing in the rain, and hot chocolate on the summit. But please make sure you are suitably equipped and within your limits to stay safe when conditions can change rapidly.
6. Find green space anywhere
The benefits of green space can be found just as readily in your garden or walking around the local park, as they can in the wildness of far-flung Munros. It’s not all about climbing mountains or extreme physical challenges. In the tranquil New Forest or along the Essex coastline, for example, you can make beautiful discoveries just a stone’s throw away from major urban conurbations. This is especially important considering many people lack access to, or awareness of, our National Parks and mountain areas.
7. Go now
I started Mind Over Mountains when it took me longer to get therapy for my eating disorder as a young man than it did to cycle, walk, run and kayak more than 5,000 miles around the UK – which ironically was probably a much more therapeutic process. There’s no waiting list for the Natural Health Service. Nature is a vital tool in helping to fill the gap and guide people through the anxieties and uncertainty ahead – to find time for themselves, some healing, hope, and a reconnection with what matters. The hardest part is always taking that first step but focus on these small steps, be curious and enjoy discovering the benefits of nature for yourself.