The Power of Getting Outdoors to Improve Wellbeing

Comment in passing: ‘Why do you love exercising outdoors so much?’

Me: ’For my mental well-being and to prevent an enlarging derrier’…..

This was a valid question I was once asked. It left me slightly bemused but that’s because for me, exercising outdoors has always been part of my lifestyle, well at least since my early teens when the power of the great outdoors first impacted. To set the scene, I was fortunate enough to be on a school skiing holiday but, as a typical hormonal teenager, ended up desperately homesick. On day 2, I ended up hitting the deck (hey ho it happens) but as I pulled my head out of the powder, I took a breath, looked up and BOOM – the view! I still remember it now. The valley folded out, peaks in the distance with a blanket white covering of fresh snow backdropped by a bright blue sky. Cool fresh air whistled past my face. The homesickness subsided, the view, the outdoors, and the skiing became my focus.

Since then, I’ve always tapped into exercise and the outdoors. Whilst I enjoyed sports at school it was low key, at uni I was never sporty enough to make a team but enjoyed being outside. I tried (yes tried) to surf and when that failed, started jogging…… at least I could get from a to b on land outside! So from there it grew and as military postings have flung us from pillar to post, its importance has increased. Hitting trails, rock-climbing, mountain biking, camping, so long as it is outdoors, I’m there.

But why do I believe we should we all embrace getting out into the great outdoors to ‘exercise’ and how can it positively impact us, especially as military spouses?

Well, we know military life can be great fun and give great opportunities, but we also know too well the challenges it can present. As spouses and families we negotiate multiple moves, deployments, periods of separation, unemployment and frequent changes in schooling, friendship circles, social situations and lifestyle. Surely such continual turbulence may play out, and if so, how does this translate? These are questions I’ve been thinking about as a recent posting flung me out of my ’normal’ lifestyle. As there’s a bit of research geek in me, I turned to try and find some formal research into the quantifiable effects of this lifestyle on the health and wellbeing of military spouses. However, as I started scoping, I started to doubt my abilities.

I struggled to find any research on the health and wellbeing of military spouses.

I was flummoxed and surprised, the lack of research astounded me. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree? As a health professional I know research often looks at, I’m going to say it, ‘vulnerable’ groups. Now I certainly don’t want to label military spouses as ‘vulnerable’, they are in fact some of the strongest people I know, but arguably the sheer nature of the lifestyle makes us more ‘vulnerable’. I continued the search and found a little nugget. A US based study showed that 78%, yes 78%, of US military wives reported mild to severe depression. I was shocked. Quite honestly, I thought this figure may be around about 30% but not over 70% (please don’t judge me for this 😔). Then, as I was writing this (well rewriting), a UK based study was published which concluded military wives have a higher prevalence of probable depression and more hazardous drinking habits than the general population. The research is scanty but maybe I’m not so barking……

I’m not going to deeply analyse these studies here, I’d like you to keep reading! They may not be perfect but they are a starting point. They offer food for thought on a very real subject and highlight 2 major points:

1. More research is desperately needed to understand the mental wellbeing of military spouses. How does this lifestyle affect and translate into the health and wellbeing of military spouses? Social anxiety, isolation, depression, decreased confidence, loss of self worth and struggling? Words that anecdotally appear too often when discussing the effects of military lifestyle on spouses.

2. Once this knowledge and understanding is gained, we need to identify how it can be best translated into action to support our spouses.

So here’s a call to grant holders: this is an issue which desperately needs addressing!

But what about you and I……

What can we start doing right now to start to help maintain and improve our wellbeing?

Well, health and wellbeing is multifactorial but I truly believe outdoors ’exercise’ holds one valuable key. It is free, anyone can access it, any time, anywhere and is proven in research to improve wellbeing. So if you need a little convincing please read on!

Exercise and activity: note the inverted commas 😉

Oh the emotive words! For some, these words can make you want to jump up and down, for some, it can cause a big shudder, for some, it is an indifferent necessity….. or for you, it maybe something else. Please don’t shudder, please don’t switch off because there’s power in exercise. Physical activity triggers chemicals in the brain which positively change mood. It can actually make us feel happy! Because of this, physical activity can be protective against anxiety and help mild depression. In addition, it has been shown to raise self esteem, improve self control and increase the ability to rise to a challenge. So surely it’s worth a shot?

But wait, hold on, I hear you, what if you say, I’m one of those people who don’t like exercise, don’t do exercise, don’t have time for exercise, find it hard to fit into the day? I hear you, they’re valid responses, whilst exercise is my thing, if you asked me to crochet, I’d be well out of my depth! But this is where the ‘’ come in. This is where you mould exercise and form it to be what YOU want it to be. Because, exercise has the power to help protect and improve mental wellbeing. So, if your exercise is taking 5 steps out of the back door into fresh air, try it, if your exercise is walking to the bus stop, try it, if your exercise is running, carry on running, if your exercise is swimming, splash on, or if you’re climbing a mountain today just keep going! Make your exercise your own, mould and form it to you.

But why outdoors, come on it’s raining……

So isn’t getting ’active’ enough? Well it’s a great start but go on and take one step further…. get outdoors. Why? Those who experience the outdoors have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol which is responsible for controlling your mood, motivation and fear. So by stepping outside you may help to lower the cortisol levels and calm those fight or flight reactions. But, if you can consider combining exercise and being outside together, the potential to improve wellbeing increases further. Whilst any exercise is great, outdoors activity is thought to lower anxiety levels further than indoors activity, offering greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement. And wait for it…. apparently exercising outdoors has been reported in the research as easier and less demanding. I’ll go with that! Apparently there’s more distraction which makes the exercise appear easier to our brains. I can certainly vouch for that – running on a treadmill is a mental wellbeing downer but outside, it’s a different kettle of fish!

By now I’m hopefully selling the outdoors! It’s not always easy (though those big remote military patches help) but try and seek out a greenish space… it’s considered a ’restorative environment’ which helps overcome mental fatigue, lower levels of stress and reduces anxiety and depression. Finally, and this is exciting, it is thought that the first 5 minutes of exercise in green spaces has the greatest impact on mood and self esteem, suggesting there’s immediate psychological benefit in getting outdoors. So even if its 5 minutes in a busy day, get out there, see the positives of those sometimes geographically challenging and remote patches, go to the park, walk down a green street, take a run, a swim a bike ride. Do what YOU can.

So, that’s it for this blog. I’d love to have sowed a little seed of thought about outdoors activity and exercise and why it has the potential to be a great first line approach for maintaining and potentially improving the wellbeing of military spouses – an issue which may be currently overlooked but must change. Finally, if you feel happy or able, please take a minute to share this. Maybe the issue of spousal mental wellbeing can start getting the attention it deserves and we can all learn how to take simple steps to preserve and improve our wellbeing.

PSST: The research geek in me feels I should be referencing my blog but yawn! Instead, here’s a few of the links so you know I’m not telling porky pies!

The journey starts here……

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac

Every journey starts with an introduction. So this is me, a thirty something year old military wife, mum of two, three if you include our dog, nurse by profession but not at the minute, and a lover of the outdoors, exercise and adventure. Military life, like the life of many these days, can be mobile, which in turn has it has its ups, its downs, its somewhere in betweens but not much stability. It can feel like navigating your way through a range of mountains or hills. Sometimes this navigating can be fun and rewarding, sometimes exciting or challenging, and sometimes it can just be mighty hard work.

For the last 12 years I’ve been navigating this life. I’ve been doing ok by my standards….. somehow juggling military life and being a wife and mummy (or Mommy as I’m now known), whilst attempting to keep my ‘nursing career’ plodding on in some description. Throughout this journey, staying active and getting outdoors has always been my ‘go-to’, my headspace. Sometimes I’d be alone, sometimes I’d be with a small group of friends. I’d never done anything competitive, I didn’t track what I did and I’m certainly not professing to be any kind of athlete! However, it is something I’ve always been able to do, something I’ve always been able to tap into, anytime, anywhere.

Despite this love for ‘exercise’, ‘activity’ and being outdoors, the initial idea for this blog only emerged 6 months ago after I did something I never thought I’d do…..running (well kind of) my first half marathon. This had never been on my bucket list, instead a friend gently encouraged me. I had nothing to loose. 6 months prior, we’d been posted to the USA and whilst this was, and still is, a fantastic opportunity full of adventure, personally, the challenges of military life or in fact any mobile life, once again surfaced. More than ever, I was running, biking and getting outdoors.

I’ll tell you more about running the half marathon one day but for now, let’s just say the whole process provoked a fair amount of thinking. I’ve spent time reflecting on my experiences with ‘exercise’, ‘activity’ and getting outdoors and how I believe it can help with the challenges of military life. Whilst ideas for the blog grew, I also knew I wanted to do something more. In June, I was lucky enough to be part of the SMSpouses course. Not only did I gain knowledge and learn new skills, but I also experienced first hand how valuable social and virtual networks can be within military life. Bang….. there it was, my something more! So as I attempt to grow this blog, I have two aims:

  • Firstly, I’d like to try and share with you my passion for the outdoors, ‘activity’ and ‘exercise’ whilst identifying how it can help improve health and wellbeing, especially of military wives, spouses and families.
  • Secondly, as the blog grows I’d like to develop some social and virtual networks around outdoors activity, ‘exercise’ and health and wellbeing. A place that people can tap into anytime, anywhere, despite moves, challenges, or apparent fitness level.

So if this is something you’re even a little interested in, please do hang on in there with me. It will become clearer. But before I sign off, there’s one really important thing….. the words ‘exercise’ and ‘activity’, there’s a reason why they’ve been in ‘…’. I know these words can make people jump up and down with excitement (yes, I’m probably one of them) or shudder and recoil (yes, I’ve also seen those looks of awkwardness) but there’s no judgement here, please don’t switch off yet, it’s about making those words your own, maintaining and improving your health and wellbeing in your way. So follow me and let’s start the journey.