Monday 22 January 2018

Are you suffering from nature deficit disorder?

Hygge? Old hat. To discover a world of well-being, follow the latest Scandi trend and head outdoors, writes Alice Wilkinson. Interviews by Joanna Kiernan

Heading outdoors is the latest trend
Heading outdoors is the latest trend
Kiana Weber
Fitness Hula Hooper Mairéad Collins. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Adventurer Maria Harney
Cyclist Orla Hendron

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 friluftsliv 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."

Speaking at a conference in 2016, Dr Carmel Brennan, from Early Childhood Ireland, noted that Irish kids are getting less than 60 minutes of outdoor activities a day - that's less than a prison inmate. 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.

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, Alabama, claiming that the idea we become depressed because of lack of sunlight is a myth.

Yet some estimates suggest that 20pc 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. The HSE recommends the best source of vitamin D is summer sunlight, to regulate calcium levels, and 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 69pc experienced significant increases in well-being and 76pc 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 36pc 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 Louv.

Of course, while all this is readily accessible in the countryside, urban landscapes pose a difficulty. Several studies have been carried out on the negative effects of busy urban spaces on our cognitive health. A decade-long study of 6.6million 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 to spend more time in green spaces. Just last week, it was announced €200m in EU support would be invested in Irish forestry, which will improve maintenance of 1,000km of publically accessible walking routes and mountain bike trails.

And last year, Maureen McCoy and Paul McCambridge's Wild Swimming in Ireland - Discover 50 Places to Swim in Rivers, Lakes and the Sea encouraged us all to take a dip in our wild waters.

So, whether you workout outdoors, schedule a Sunday family outing, or tend your vegetable patch once a week, friluftsliv has set the tone for 2017. Here four women share there friluftsliv experiences.

© Telegraph

The Adventurer

Adventurer Maria Harney

Maria Harney, 29, from Kildare

"I try to get outdoors as often as I can. I don't have a strict schedule and it very much changes depending on the season or who is available to come with me," Maria says. "During the week I try to get out for a 30-minute run at least three times to keep up my overall fitness level. I also do indoor and outdoor rock climbing, kayaking, hiking and snowboarding when I am abroad, and apart from running, I will always try do one of these activities within the week too.

"Fitness doesn't have to be a chore; you just need to find an activity that you love doing," Maria adds. "It's only when you get out there that you will realise how accessible these sports are and how many active local clubs there are."

Maria has always been an active person, but she only truly discovered the outdoors scene over the last few years.

"I played a lot of team sports growing up, but only got into outdoors sports in the past seven years," Maria explains. "I spent almost four years in Queenstown New Zealand where outdoor sports are part of everyday life. I started snowboarding while I was there and that's when my love of the outdoors began.

"So when I moved home the lack of snow forced me to branch out. I joined Lacken Kayak Club, which led me into the wonderful world of kayaking, and Awesome Walls indoor climbing wall in Dublin inspired my love for climbing.

"I am lucky that my fiancé has the same interest in outdoor sports that I have, so we keep each other motivated and plan most of our social time and holidays around activities that we both enjoy.

"I was a member of a gym last year during the winter, and I did enjoy it for the benefits of being able to keep fit during the dark evenings, but it definitely lacked the social aspect, sense of adventure, and just fun I guess, that outdoor activities provide," Maria adds. "I prefer a different kind of gym, the climbing gym!"

The Hula Hooper

Fitness Hula Hooper Mairéad Collins. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Mairead Collins, 34, from Dublin

"I started hooping in 2006," Mairead says. "I saw a friend of mine hooping at the Summer Solstice at the Hill of Tara and I just loved it. I went home and started to research it from there and I became mad into it from then on.

"There are loads of YouTube tutorials, and a huge online community involved, so I got into it that way," says Mairead.

"I started travelling to learn from different hoop teachers and some of them agreed to come over here, when I started the Irish Hoop Convention, so we now get international teachers coming over here from all over including the likes of France and Spain and the UK to teach hoop."

Mairead began teaching hoop in 2011 in Temple Bar and has since moved her classes to the Dublin Circus Centre in Cabra.

So what exactly are the benefits of hula hooping?

"Hooping is cardio basically, it gets your heart rate up and it is a form of dance, it is the only exercise I need," Mairead explains. "One of the great things about it is that hooping can be different things to different people, so for some it is a dance, to others it is a circus performance and to others it is just plain exercise.

"It is more than people think as well," Mairead adds. "Many people think you just hula hoop around your waist, but you can hoop on every part of your body and different moves will target different areas and body parts; so overall you will be losing weight just by expending that energy and you are also toning up certain areas, depending on what you want to go for; it is very much down to the individual and what they want to achieve."

Another positive to hooping is that there is no base level of fitness required for beginners.

"Generally, people will start off hooping on the waist and move on to other areas like the hands, the neck and even on to lying on the ground while hooping with the feet, after that there are lots of advanced moves and you can move on to maybe double hoops and throws and triple hoops when you get the hang of it all, but it is for everyone and at every stage," Mairead says.

"It is play. It is about getting adults to reconnect to that childish thing of moving just for the joy of it and that is really good for people, everyone benefits from a bit of that.

"It is good for elevating the mood and it gets the endorphins flowing no matter what age you are. You never play with your hula hoop for 20 minutes or a half an hour and leave feeling sad. It really gets you moving."

The Yogi / Runner

Kiana Weber

Kiana Weber, 26, from Michigan and living in Galway

Kiana plays the fiddle, and performs internationally as part of Gaelic Storm .

"When I started travelling a lot I realised that I need to stay on top of my fitness, for my sanity and for my health," Kiana says. "Running is the most natural thing for me; it is just so great for your body and for your mind. I especially love it when I am travelling because it gives you a way to see the city you are in as well, and get to know the area that you are in.

"I have been doing distance running for years. I am really into yoga as well, but I guess overall my approach is to focus on balance."

For Kiana, exercise is as important for the mind as it is for the body.

"I actually find the inspiration to get out and move a lot of the time comes more from the mental side of things," Kiana says. "The mental space, the energy and the clarity that exercising gives you - especially when you are travelling - is just amazing. Whatever I do each day, whether it is yoga or going for a run, I am so much more on my game after doing it."

"I have to improvise all of the time," Kiana adds. "I travel six months of the year, so when I am on the road I am all about finding things that I can do outside of the gym. I like to put on my shoes and just go and this has been the most worthwhile routine to work into my life, because you can do that anywhere and at any time and there are no excuses."

The Cyclist

Cyclist Orla Hendron

Orla Hendron, 53, from Dublin

Orla Hendron took up cycling at 40 and has since gone on to become World Masters Track Champion on two occasions. She is a member of the Orwell Wheelers cycling club.

"I did triathlon first and from that I ended up doing a charity cycle for Crumlin Hospital, and I met a guy on that trip who suggested I might enjoy racing," Orla says.

"I joined Orwell Wheelers as a result. Joining the club really led me to catch the bug for the bike. It is great because you are around like-minded people and it helps you to really get the most out of it.

"There is an outlay initially on the bike, but the freedom of it is that you can just walk out your door and just go," Orla adds. "It is just you and the bike, if you meet up with people great, but that is an added bonus, you are not relying on anyone else to do it."

Orla now does Cyclo-cross, track racing, road cycling and mountain biking.

"I am 53 years of age now so it is great that I am still able to be competitive and to train and compete at an elite level," Orla says.

"I am not trying to get to the Olympics, but I am able to challenge myself. I've tried loads of sports in my life, but in cycling I have managed to find something that I have been able to excel at."

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