I grew up in a family who valued getting out into nature. My parents met while participating in the backcountry ski patrol and ski touring clubs in Washington State. I like to joke that if it were not for the outdoors, I might not exist. Rain, snow, or shine, my brother and I were taken to parks, beaches or other places of nature. Some of my favourite childhood memories were skiing in to cut a Christmas tree in the Cascades, hopping on my dad’s back to avoid getting my boots wet during a stream crossing and horse riding in national parks. One of my favourite things about living in Bulgaria and travelling Europe, especially this time of year, is watching how much of the population gets out and enjoys the natural beauty. South Park on a sunny day is always packed with walkers, bikers, footballers, and more. Vitosha Mountain is covered with hikers of all ages and abilities. The beach towns are busy with people playing and laying in the sand and surf. It is inspiring to see.
Unfortunately, people overall are not spending as much time outside anymore with the increased use of technology for daily tasks, habits developed during COVID lockdowns, and more people living in urban areas. According to DataReportal’s Digital 2023: Global Overview Report, people in European countries are spending on average around 6 hours per day on screens. In the US, that number rises to 7.5 hours.
We are also seeing increasing rates of anxiety and depression globally coming out of the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) saw a 25% increase according to their data, mostly attributed to social isolation and lack of being able to engage with their community. EU-OSHA’s 2022 survey of workers found a 44% increase in reports of work stress.
Luckily for us, psychological research has provided one simple stress-relieving solution, get outside. According to the American Psychological Association, “exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation.” Experiments have shown that getting out into nature also supports an individual’s working memory and ability to think flexibly. In these studies, nature is something as simple as a green space or city park. It does not have to be some epic trek or remote location. One study of 20,000 UK adults showed that just two hours of outdoor recreation the previous week led to significantly greater reported levels of personal wellness. All of those people I have seen out and about in nature recently are doing a stress-relieving activity, whether they consciously realise it or not.
In conclusion, I encourage you to find time in your busy lives to find balance and support your cognitive health and emotional wellbeing by getting outside. Find something you enjoy. It could be a stroll in one of Sofia’s great green spaces or a picnic in the park. Possibly it is trying to find that last bit of snow high up on the peaks. Maybe it is soaking in the sea air on the Black Sea Coast or in Greece. Just whatever you do, get outside, your wellbeing will thank you for it.