Why outdoor therapy is the wellness travel trend you need to try

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This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Today, around 4.4 billion people live in cities. That’s more than half the world’s population, set to increase to almost 70% by 2050. While urban environments bring with them myriad benefits, from economic advantages to entertainment, they also often come with a lack of connection to nature — and it shows. Travel destinations, hotels and wellness centres around the world are catching on, offering a variety of outdoor therapies that promise to help visitors with their physical and mental wellbeing.

Dr Andrew Cuthbert is the clinical director of Michigan-based mental healthcare practice Timber Creek Counseling. Dr Cuthbert deeply believes in the power of spending time outdoors in nature as being integral in helping to improve people’s mental health, and there’s a wealth of research to back him up. He notes that studies have shown the benefits of time spent outdoors include reduced risk of psychiatric disorders, improved working memory, cognitive performance, emotional wellbeing and cooperative behaviour. “Funnily enough, as I sat down to refresh myself on this very topic, my brain felt jumbled from stressors, a long to-do list and general problems in my life,” he says. “After a walk in the woods, with leaves falling around me and the wind hitting my face, I returned with a clear mind.”

As part of his practice, Dr Cuthbert combines the “typical setup of getaway retreats with weekly therapy”, as he puts it, incorporating ‘walk and talk’ therapy into sessions and encouraging patients to spend time in nature as a complement to formal sessions. “We hold couples retreats away from the city in beautiful areas where we elevate the importance of being outside,” he explains. “Couples are encouraged to connect with their partner through play in the great outdoors and have difficult conversations surrounded by nature, noting the impact the environment has on the conversation.”

As more and more people recognise the importance of spending time outdoors, destinations are rising to the challenge, creating an amazing breadth of wellness-promoting programmes that take place in beautiful natural areas, from forests and mountains to beaches and ranches. Activities such as equine therapy, float therapy, labyrinth walking, fly-fishing, surf therapy, flower therapy, outdoor sound healing and many more are popping up, developed by both mental health professionals and experts within each specific field. Dr Cuthbert loves the idea of them as a fun and creative way to support people’s mental health. “It’s encouraging to hear that more people are starting to explore these avenues for healing,” he concludes.

Six therapies that harness the power of nature

1. Equine therapy, US
Animal-asisted therapy is incorporated into more traditional approaches to harness the power of the human-animal bond and make patients feel comfortable. The most popular four-legged therapy friends are dogs, but horses come in at a close second. With their acute perception of non-verbal cues, horses are adept at reflecting clients’ emotional states. In California’s breathtaking Carmel Valley Ranch, equine therapy has been seen to improve emotional and cognitive function. Book into an equine connection session to spend time with the ranch’s horses and enjoy equestrian mindfulness, learning techniques for greater presence. One session costs £140.

2. Float therapy, Iceland
Floating in highly buoyant water containing magnesium sulphate dramatically reduces stress chemicals and blood pressure, sending the body into a relaxed and often euphoric state. As a result, creativity and mental clarity are said to be heightened, the immune system strengthened and sleep quality can be improved. To meditate at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, head to the Retreat at Blue Lagoon in Iceland, where guests can float on the mineral-rich waters, wearing a specially designed buoyancy suit and accompanied by a float therapist. From £50 per person. 

3. Ocean therapy, UK
Research carried out on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) saw numerous health benefits of being by the sea. The sound was shown to calm the mind, as did watching waves lapping against the shore, with symptoms reduced by up to 36%. Kalm Horizons founder Mark Smith runs mindfulness sessions on the beach in Worthing, West Sussex, combining the ocean with visualisations and sound therapy using singing bowls to help clients with stress, anxiety and sleep. A single class costs £50.

4. Forest bathing, Hong Kong
Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese practice of forest bathing, now popular in woodlands around the world. Wandering mindfully through trees and immersing yourself in nature has a calming and restorative effect on both the mind and body and has been proven to have a positive impact on the immune system, helping with stress and anxiety. In the heart of Lung Fu Shan Country Park on Hong Kong island, forest therapy guide and transformational coach Amanda Yik guides people in discovering the holistic healing effects of the forest, using breathwork, meditation, and the energy emitted by trees. From £125 per person. 

5. Art therapy, Crete
Integrating psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process, art is used as as a medium to address distressing emotional issues. There’s something highly soothing about focusing on nothing but brush strokes. Combine this with the great outdoors and it has the potential to be transformative. Artful Retreats hosts experiences in Crete, and welcomes anyone regardless of their artistic ability to be creative and find new ways to look at their daily challenges, set amid the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape. A six-day retreat costs £1,600 per person.

6. Labyrinth walking, US
Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has no dead ends, wrong turns or blind passages. Walking its single winding path is a soothing experience, designed to encourage self-reflection and seizing the moment. The labyrinth at Serenbe in Georgia is a walking meditation device aimed at helping participants manage stress and jumpstart personal growth. The path is mapped using meaningful Celtic symbols such as the circle meaning life without beginning or end and the spiral for rebirth. One session costs £22.  

Published in the Spa Collection 2024, distributed with the March 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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