Two women walking outside in the woods during summer
Mental Health

Friluftsliv: the Nordic concept which could help to boost your mental health

Is your mental health in need of a boost? Here’s how embracing the Nordic concept of ‘friluftsliv’ could help.

It’s no secret that getting outside in nature is good for your mental health. From the serotonin-boosting effect of sunlight exposure to the impact a walk around your local park can have on your mood, getting outdoors – whether that’s to the beach, woods or your local park – can provide a whole host of benefits.

It’s why so many of us turned to nature to look after our mental health during lockdown – at a time when the pressures of the pandemic were leading to rising cases of anxiety and depression, getting outside for our daily walk and reconnecting with nature helped us to feel a little more grounded. And it’s for this reason that the focus of 2021’s mental health awareness week (10-16 May) centres around the benefits of getting outside and being around nature.

However, as lockdown eases, this connection with nature has the potential to take a back seat. While the reopening of society and the easing of lockdown is no doubt a good thing for our collective mental health, it’s also important that we continue to make the most of being outside and reaping the benefits for our wellbeing. And that’s where the Nordic concept of ‘friluftsliv’ comes in.  

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The term, which translates roughly to ‘open-air living,’ is widely popular across the Nordic countries where, despite freezing temperatures and very few hours of sunlight throughout the winter months, getting outside and embracing the outdoors is part of life all year around.

While friluftsliv is often recommended as a solution to seasonal affective disorder and the ‘winter blues,’ continuing to embrace the outdoors as we move into the summer months is still just as important, whether that’s by making the most of your garden, scheduling picnics with friends or going for a walk in the sun.  

Indeed, not only does embracing friluftsliv mean spending more time surrounded by nature – a habit which, as we’ve already mentioned, is proven to benefit our mental health – it also means spending more time being active and staying healthy.  

“We have a saying in Sweden: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’,” explains Niels Eék, a Swedish psychologist and co-founder of the personal development and mental wellbeing app, Remente. “Friluftsliv is something that is ingrained into us Swedes from a young age. This is why, even in the depths of winter, groups of friends will often be found meeting outdoors, hiking and picnicking together.”

He continues: “Living a friluftsliv way of life means being outdoors as much as possible which, of course, benefits your physical and mental health. Across Scandinavia, friluftsliv plays an essential part in most people’s lives – this is partly due to the fact that we have a lot of land, small populations and the freedom to roam virtually anywhere, and partly due to the fact that being immersed in nature is shown to boost mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing, so we actively seek it out.”

A woman pausing for a drink on a hike through the woods
Making the most of all weather conditions, whether it's pouring with rain or sunny and hot, is a key part of friluftsliv.

Although traditional friluftsliv is all about being outdoors as often and for as long as possible, sitting outside during your lunch break or making a walk part of your daily routine is a great place to start.

After all, there’s a reason why so many people found going for a daily walk so helpful during lockdown – not only does it get our bodies moving (something which is crucial when we’re living and working from home), but it also has the potential to help reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.

“It is no secret that being outside is good for us,” Eék explains. “Connecting with nature has been proven to contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress and depression, and a recent study found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature leads to greater wellbeing.”

Although heading out when it’s absolutely tipping with rain (which, as much as we hate to say it, is part of life during the British summer) may not seem like the best way to cheer yourself up, embracing friluftsliv is all about putting these apprehensions behind you and making the most of the outside world.

“While it may not seem all that appealing to go outside for any prolonged amount of time when the weather is grey, cold, and wet, we Norwegians have a saying: ‘Ut på tur, aldri sur’, directly translating to ‘Out on hike, never in a bad mood’,” says Karen Dolva, Norwegian co-founder and CEO of No Isolation, a start-up that works to bring people together via technology. 

A girl walking with a yellow raincoat and yellow umbrella
Friluftsliv: going for a walk, whether with a friend or on your own, is a great way to stay connected with the outside world during lockdown.

She continues: “This basically means you never regret going out – for us, being outdoors and together is where some of the happiest memories are made.”

At a time when you might be looking for ways to reconnect with your social side after so long stuck at home, embracing friluftsliv could help you to feel more in touch with your local community, too. 

This might mean a number of different things – as well as meeting up with a friend or heading outside with people from your household, you could also use your time outside to chat on the phone with a family member who lives far away, or even just interact with the people you pass on your way. 

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“When on a hike in the Nordics, it’s commonplace to greet everyone you meet with a warm and welcoming ‘hei’,” Dolva explains. “The reason for this is because we are all taking part in the same activity, enjoying nature together. We are friends, so we should say hello to each other.

She continues: “This social friendliness requires no physical contact but can really make someone’s day. I really would urge others to adopt this behaviour, smiling and saying hello from a safe distance.”

Whether or not you’re a typical ‘outdoorsy’ person, it’s clear that making time outdoors a priority and doing your best to follow a friluftsliv lifestyle could help you to take care of your mental health as we get back to ‘normal’. It may be all too easy to get sucked back into your busy life as lockdown eases, but if you fancy holding on to some of the healthy habits you forged over the last year, friluftsliv could be a great place to start.

How to embrace friluftsliv this summer

Get outside, rain or shine

No matter what the weather, friluftsliv is about getting outside and exploring what the natural world has to offer.

Sure, sitting on a park bench and eating lunch may not be an achievable rainy-day activity, but you can still go for a walk with an umbrella or a raincoat. It’s all about adapting to what the weather gives you.

Make the most of lunch

If you’re still working from home, making sure you’re staying active during the day is important. Move away from your desk for an hour, head outside and get moving – you won’t regret it.  

A woman looking out to the sea
Friluftsliv: are you ready to embrace open air living during lockdown 2.0?

Engage in outdoor exercise

If you’re sick of home workouts and don’t fancy heading back to the gym, exercising outside could be the solution you’re looking for. You could even do it with a friend.

“Make it fun!” Eék says. “Plan a long walk and explore a new part of your local area, encourage each other to take up jogging, or practise yoga.

Get set up

You may not need a full coat and gloves at this time of year (although the British weather can be pretty unpredictable), but if you’re set on making outdoor time part of your life over the next year, you might consider investing in some good walking boots and a nice raincoat, for when it inevitably rains.

If you’re lucky enough to have some outdoor space, you could also spend some time sprucing up your garden, patio or balcony with some new plants and outdoor accessories, so you can be outside even when you’re at home. 

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Enjoy some alone time

Just because meeting others outdoors is a great way to reconnect, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy time outside on our own, too.

Whether you go for a solo jog, engage in some mindful hiking or simply sit on a bench and read a book, being outside on your own is a great way to calm the mind. 

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This article was originally published on 5 November and has since been updated throughout.

Images: Getty