Adventure Uncovered
Published on 15th May 2019
15 min read
To mark the UK’s 2019 Mental Health Awareness Week, three leading adventure and outdoor advocates give their verdicts on why getting outside and getting active is good for the mind

The facts around mental health problems are well known. According to the charity Mind, one in four people in the UK now suffer some kind of mental health problem every year. This is having serious knock-on consequences, with the number of people considering self-harm or even suicide to cope with these problems on the rise.

Perhaps less well publicised but increasingly well understood are the benefits of adventure in tackling many of these problems. A growing body of hard research is bearing out what anecdotally has seemed obvious to many for a long time: that, from anxiety to chronic depression, outdoor pursuits can help ease a variety of mental health conditions. The evidence is now sufficiently compelling for mental health practitioners to have begun prescribing adventure and outdoor activity as forms of alternative therapy, most notably in Scotland, where doctors commonly prescribe nature to their patients.

To mark this week’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, Adventure Uncovered spoke to three stalwart outdoor ambassadors about the benefits of what they do for mental wellbeing. Here, they give us their verdict on why, for our sanity’s sake, we all need more adventure in our lives.

Nobody cares

Alice Gartland is a marathon swimmer, head coach at the Women’s Swimming Collective and contributing editor of Outdoor Swimmer Magazine.

Adventure Uncovered: You’re a great champion of the power of outdoor swimming to inspire positive change in many different ways – what for you are the biggest benefits of swimming to mental health and wellbeing?
It offers community and companionship, the opportunity to keep fit, and, perhaps most importantly, it is an open-minded space, where conversations around mental health happen without fear of the stigma that can be found elsewhere in society. The science connecting coldwater swimming with the alleviation of anxiety, depression and trauma is being evidenced more and more and that connection with the zeitgeist of ‘wild’ swimming puts mental health in the mainstream. We can’t measure the ripple effects of that coverage, but I think it’s a good guess that it provides a powerful positive nudge in the wider mental health agenda, around reducing stigma, alternatives to medication and the importance of connecting to the natural world.

One of the themes in this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘body image’. To what extent do you feel swimming can help ease the anxieties people may feel about their bodies?
In general the thought of swimming probably increases anxiety about how people feel about their bodies. But once you’ve been able to walk that catwalk from the changing room to the pool, a new world opens up.

In the case of outdoor swimming, as I have said many times, for a sport where people pretty much get naked most of the time, body image is irrelevant – I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in my swimming costume… What is this magic I speak of? I’m not 100% sure, but my hunch is that in the water we are free and it feels great. Putting aside the very real issues around learn to swim and access and participation in swimming in the UK for a moment, outdoor swimming is also a leveller. I have no idea what most of my swimming buddies ‘do’ for a living, and in this way the ‘measures’ of worth by clothing size, six-packs and salaries etc. that bombard us day to day, are forgotten. In their place, we can reveal our true human (and innately vulnerable) character, which in turn, creates a space where genuine friendships can be made.

It is also an activity that you can enjoy on your own terms. It can be a very gentle and healing space when you are in recovery from illness or undergoing a course of treatment, which often means processing a lot of changes in your body; You can just float, or you can train for a marathon swim – there’s a range of options in open water!

What would your message be to people who have considered outdoor swimming because of its many benefits, but perhaps feel put off because they feel uncomfortable about how they feel in their skins?
You’re not alone. If I said outdoor swimming is a panacea for body image, that would be a lie. We can all have days (or weeks or more) where we feel down about ourselves, insecure and unattractive. But don’t let that stop you from taking a leap into something hugely nourishing for body and spirit – once you’re in the water you’ll love it and you’ll be delighted at how regular dips with kindred swim spirits can transform a crap day into a most excellent one. In turn, your self-esteem will increase, you’ll reconnect with your amazing body (it can swim! In cold water!) and disrupt those negative thought patterns, so that holding yourself to ransom to ‘beach body’ billboards can become a thing of the past.

So, how to get to the water’s edge? i) If you’ve got a friend who swims already, ask them to show you the ropes; ii) Join your local lido (many will have welcome mornings for new swimmers) or find your local wild swim group (see the Outdoor Swimming Society’s website for a list of groups around the country). iii) There’s a much wider choice of swimwear for men and women nowadays too – check out Zoggs, Funkita, Speedo, Decathlon and Deakin and Blue for funky, supportive and eco-friendly options; iv) A hammam towel can double up as a sarong, providing the perfect combo of extra cover should you wish, with #wildswimchic; v) When you’re walking from the changing room to the pool, you may think everyone is watching you, but trust me, they’re not – they’re already enjoying the water and lucky you, you’re about to join them!

Womens Swimming Collective on Instagram
Alice on Twitter

Mind over mountains

Alex Staniforth is a record-breaking endurance adventurer, motivational speaker, mental health fundraiser and author from Cheshire.

What’s your first defining memory of experiencing the outdoors, and what influence has that had on where you are today?
I spent a lot of time walking my dogs in the local forest and on the beach as a child but the most poignant was probably trying paragliding in Turkey on holiday. This threw me completely outside of my comfort zone at just 13 years old. That was the catalyst to start saying ‘yes’ and realising I didn’t have to be held back anymore, by finding my confidence and an environment where I belonged. This change in mindset fuelled a curiosity and drive to climb above the self-doubts triggered by relentless bullying and my stammer. It’s ultimately the reason I’m here doing what I do today.

Walking Haystacks

The positive impacts of participating in adventure and outdoor activities on mental wellbeing are increasingly well understood. What for you are the main mental health benefits of taking part in adventure, or just being outdoors and experiencing nature?
There’s so much to say, but it’s often hard to describe! I think being outdoors is more about mental resilience gained. Bad weather can put us out of our comfort zones, but the more we suffer, the more rewarding it seems. During my Climb The UK challenge in 2017 I ran out of ways to say ‘that was the worst day of my life’ but whilst these ‘type-2 fun’ experiences might be horrible at the time, they give so much satisfaction afterwards, raise our threshold towards difficult situations and give us something to feel good about. Having outdoor challenge goals keeps us accountable and gives a reason to go outside when we might otherwise mull in bed, feeling worse. Being in the outdoors has a natural way of putting things in perspective, and if only temporarily, I find life always seems so much brighter and hopeful when in the outdoors.

What would you like to see happen to make the benefits of these activities more widely accessible to people suffering from mental health issues?
In society we’re too quick to overlook the obvious red flags in our lifestyles and prescribe pills when we need purpose first. The paradox is that making these lifestyle changes is not so simple when already feeling depressed, and it creates a vicious cycle. Being outside has even been prescribed as an alternative therapy, which speaks for itself! I’m setting up a C.I.C later this year called ‘Mind Over Mountains’ to try and provide these outdoor experiences to more people so that being active becomes a regular habit and part of people’s lives, and by empowering them to help themselves, will help reduce the number of people suffering. I hope this can reach as many people as possible, however it will take a much wider campaign, partnerships and funding to provide it for everyone who needs it.

Breaking down barriers

Michelle Ellison, a Kiwi-born London dweller and adventurer, recently scaled Europe’s 48 highest peaks. She is an ambassador for SayYesMore, a global movement that uses social media to bring people together in the real world, often outside.

In your life journey, who has inspired you get outdoors and get active?In recent years it has been the adventure community in London that has inspired and supported me to explore what I am mentally and physically capable of. Initially when I started turning up to adventure talks in London, I’d always walk away thinking the people who spoke were so inspiring and their journeys were so exciting, but I could never do anything like that. It wasn’t until I went to the Explore weekend at the Royal Geographical Society, that I not only learnt how to create an expedition, but also one with purpose and I was hooked. I saw how it was possible for me to create my own adventure, within my own limits and although it wouldn’t be to the South Pole, it’d still be pretty cool.

The person who taught me the tricks of adventuring in my 30’s, who gave me the confidence to go on my own, carry my own kit, figure out the logistics and encourage me to leave the safety of travelling with a tour guide (well she actually gave me no choice in Patagonia lol) is my good friend and awesome lifelong adventurer Mel Joe.

The positive impacts of participating in adventure and outdoor activities on mental wellbeing are increasingly well understood. What for you are the main mental health benefits of taking part in adventure, or just being outdoors and experiencing nature?
The list is so long! My overall life, both physically and mentally are so much happier when I am in the outdoors. I feel like I can really breathe. It always creates connection between myself and the environment, my friends and the strangers I meet along the way. I can never walk past a person on a mountain without saying hello, cycle past another touring cyclist without giving them a smile and a nod, or chatting to a rambler on the edge of a river bank, as I stand up paddle at the same speed next to them. The outdoors creates beautiful silence and also real conversations, away from the hecticness of a fast-paced and crowded London. It is in the outdoors where I have improved my confidence in what I thought I’m capable of achieving, which has had such a positive impact on my day-to-day life in London too.

What would you like to see happen to make the benefits of these activities more widely accessible to people suffering from mental health issues?
I’d like to see professionals (in the public, private and charity sectors) who are in roles that support those suffering from a mental illness encourage those suffering to make the outdoors a part of their world, both in their local community and further afield.

There are so many barriers to learning what connection could be found for someone in the outdoors and what is possible for them to access, so for me it’s about breaking down those barriers. All my earlier experiences of getting in the outdoors were with the support of someone who was more experienced than me, or a recommendation from a friend that helped me.

So it’s finding solutions to those barriers, all of which will vary for every person, such as having no one to do it with, detailed information on different ways you can experience the outdoors to give you inspiration, groups you can join who will be supportive and lead the way, support when you are afraid, feeling worried or lacking confidence, tips on what gear to wear from your own wardrobe where possible or what economical options are available to purchase, encouragement that you don’t need to be the fittest person before you can enjoy being in nature, or are shown cost-effective ways of experiencing the outdoors.

If you are concerned about your, or a friend’s, mental state, don’t be afraid to talk about it and share the problem. Accepting that you are struggling is often the first step to recovery.

Here are links to some amazing charities and organisations that can help:

Associations and Foundations
Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England
Centre for Mental Health

Anxiety UK
Think Twice
Raise Your Hands

Check out this annual calendar to self-prescribe nature
Nature for Health
Heads Together
Mountains for the Mind

Young Minds
Wave Project