Mental Health and the Outdoors

As the digital and convenience age rolls on, physical and mental wellness doesn’t come naturally. Increasingly, a healthy lifestyle requires effort and conscious decision making within the general flow of life.

Mental health is of course an extremely diverse and complex topic that often requires specialist intervention. However, there is a lot of research promoting specific practical steps that can be beneficial. Reconnecting with the outdoors is one such pursuit, and as society increasingly recognises the profound impact of nature on mental health, a collective effort to integrate the outdoors into our lives will go a long way towards nurturing a more balanced and resilient society.  

In a study of 20 000 people, a team led by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces - local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits - were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. Two hours was a hard boundary: the study, published in 2019, showed that there were no benefits for people who didn’t meet that threshold. 

Engaging in outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, or simply taking a walk does not only promote physical well-being, but is also known to release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are crucial for mood regulation. 

So why not just walk on a treadmill? Here are a few of the many benefits of exercising and spending time in the great outdoors… 

Stress Reduction 

The calming effect of nature has been scientifically proven to reduce stress levels. Exposure to green spaces and natural environments can lower cortisol – ‘the stress hormone’ - and promote a sense of calmness. 

Mood Enhancement 

Spending time outdoors is linked to improved mood and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. The fresh air, sunlight, and the beauty of natural landscapes contribute to the release of endorphins, the body's natural mood lifters. 

Mindfulness and Presence 

Nature encourages mindfulness - a state of being fully present in the moment. Whether it's the sound of rustling leaves, the sight of a flowing stream, or the scent of blooming flowers, nature engages our senses, grounding us in the present and fostering a sense of mindfulness. 

Spiritual Connection to Something Bigger  

Nature provides a sense of awe and wonder, fostering a connection to something larger than oneself. Many people share about breakthrough moments of perspective in the timeless mountains as they disconnect from the demands and desires of life and are reminded of the more meaningful relationships and priorities in their lives; giving them renewed vision, purpose and meaning. 

Social Connection 

In an age of keeping up appearances and creating online facades of our ‘best life’ snippets, it’s refreshing to break through the glistening surface film and to spend quality time engaging with others. Positive social relationships are vital for mental health, and the outdoors offers a natural setting for building and strengthening these connections. Amongst the general negativity within our South African media and politics, I’ve been so encouraged by the far more positive reality of sharing days in the wilderness with people from all corners, classes, and cultures of our country. Somewhere in the midst of hiking up mountains together, sharing jokes, meals and our life stories, horizons are broadened, and new perspectives gained.  

Cognitive Restoration 

Nature has been shown to improve cognitive function and attention. Being immersed in a natural setting allows the mind to reset, enhancing concentration and productivity when returning to daily tasks. 

Camping in the outdoors also helps to reset our body clocks. Exposure to natural light and the absence of artificial lighting helps to regulate the circadian rhythm, with the natural darkness of the outdoors also promoting the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.  


On almost every challenging hike, someone will admit that they would not have come if they had known what they were going to go through beforehand…but are so glad that they did. Exposure to a new environment, overcoming obstacles and challenging comfort zones leads to a sense of accomplishment and belief in their ability to handle future challenges, contributing to a positive self-image, fostering a sense of inner strength, purpose, and the ability to thrive despite life's challenges. 


Geoff Brown has had a deep affiliation with the Drakensberg from early childhood and is the founder and lead guide at

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