Can an active holiday help depression?


Can an active holiday help depression?

BBC Presenter and Whereabouts Holidays ambassador, Alice Morrison, shares with us how spending time outdoors can help the body and the mind. 


Whenever I spend time outside walking or biking or swimming, my heart lifts and my mood lightens. I almost never want to get out of my nice cosy bed for a run or off my lovely soft sofa for a hike, but I cannot think of a single time that I have ever regretted doing it or felt the worse off for it. When I used to work hard in an office, the thought of a week or two-week holiday coming up when I would head off somewhere to bike or hike or raft would keep me going. I would duly go off, exhaust myself and come back with a sore body and a soothed mind, simultaneously knackered and ready to launch myself into life again.


So, can being outdoors and exercising help with low mood and depression? Chris Bird, the founder of Whereabouts Holidays, has personal experience of depression, “ I was diagnosed with depression 8 years ago. Work, personal and poor decision making issues built up over a number of years and I became a person I did not like or want to be. It's amazing that when I'm active whether that be running, walking or cycling I become the person I like.”


Depression is a serious condition and needs to be taken seriously. According to the NHS:

“ Most people go through periods of feeling down, but when you're depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days. Some people think depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. They're wrong – it is a real illness with real symptoms. Depression isn't a sign of weakness or something you can "snap out of" by "pulling yourself together".”


New data shows that British people are among the most depressed in the Western world. The data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that 10% of Britons suffer from depression which places the UK in joint seventh place for 25-64 year olds reporting they have the condition out of 25 countries across Europe and Scandinavia. What is more, according to MIND, one in four people in the UK will suffer from some form of mental illness over the course of their lifetime.


So far, so bad. But, there is some good news ahead. There is a significant body of research that shows that being outside in nature and exercising is good for you. Common sense would tell us that this is true but it is always good to consider the science.


Looking first at the question of being outside in nature:  

Stanford University in the USA carried out a study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.”


Turning to the idea of exercise itself: a large study carried out in Australia by Kristiann Heesch, senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, found that moderate-intensity exercise, or even just walking, can improve quality of life.

The study focused on depressed middle-aged women, and found that those who exercised had more energy, felt better emotionally, and weren't as limited by their depression when researchers followed up after three years. There were also physical benefits, although the psychological benefit was greater.

Kristiann Heesch, who led the study said, "The good news is that while the most benefits require 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 200 minutes of walking, even smaller amounts . . . can improve well-being."


Science proves what common sense tell us – getting out into nature and using your body will make you feel good. How does that translate to Whereabouts Holidays?

Chris Bird sums up the Whereabouts ethos, “Our whole business is focused on health and wellbeing in the workplace and within the communities we engage with. Our ambassadors represent our vision and values through their inspiring activities. We all want to have a healthy body but we view the mind as our greatest physical asset.”


For me, there are big benefits in doing an active holiday:

  1. It gives you a focus for the week and often challenges you, so you think about the adventure and give your mind a break. If you are goal-oriented as I am, then it also gives you a sense of achievement.
  2. Being in nature is always wonderful - ok apart from in ten hours of lashing rain in the Highlands of Scotland but even then, the joy you feel when you are in the warm and dry makes up for it!
  3. Hiking or biking or kayaking or any form of activity gets your blood moving and you feel hungry, tired and thirsty – all those good, natural feelings. The bliss of a cold drink, a hot meal and a long sleep after a day out cannot be underestimated.
  4. You always meet like-minded people and because you are sharing the adventure, you have lots to bond over.


The last word goes to Tanya Woolf, Director of Clinical Services at Efficacy Ltd and Consultant Counselling Psychologist:

 “Any physical activity, especially if it is aerobic, helps to lift the mood and is good for physical and mental wellbeing. In addition, activities outdoors can give you a sense of achievement. Even doing a short walk or doing a small task can help. Research shows that exercise in the outdoors lowers stress and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you are feeling low, do something active but you might also want to talk to someone supportive about how you are feeling and if your feelings persist, do seek professional help.”