Adventuring gives a huge boost to mental health

So adventuring is good for you? Well research certainly seems to prove it and Overland’s Louisa Swaden went to the Adventure Mind Conference in London last weekend to get the low-down

Talk to any adventure bike rider and they’ll wax lyrical about the reasons they ride, but you’ll notice after a time that we all say roughly the same things: we enjoy riding for riding’s sake, we like to travel, we like being in the outdoors, we like the social scene, we like the focus it brings, the solitude and on and on. We order these things slightly differently of course, but they’re usually all somewhere on the list.

So it was no surprise to me to hear many of the same things being promoted at a recent conference I attended that was aimed specifically at raising the profile of an adventure lifestyle for the mood-enhancing and mental health benefits it can provide. Adventure Mind conference was the brainchild of Belinda Kirk, a seasoned explorer and founder of Explorers Connect, a 28,000 strong community of adventure enthusiasts founded in 2009. The not-for-profit organisation runs adventure and expedition leadership courses throughout the world with the overarching mission to help people live more adventurously.

It’s long been known that being outdoors, being challenged in new ways and being socially active in a supportive environment provides huge benefits and resiliency to emotional and psychological wellbeing. But not many people are talking about it and there’s no government initiative to promote the benefits to the wider public, despite the fact that there’s plenty of evidence to show that being in nature rebalances the connection we have lost with the environment and can help increase self-esteem, resilience and reduce social anxiety.

At the conference were world-leading experts from universities in the US, Australia and the UK who could prove in a dozen different ways that adventuring really is a powerful tool to keep the mind healthy. When two out of three people say they have suffered some form of mental illness in their lifetime and when suicide is the leading cause of death in the UK for men aged between 20 and 49 (NHS Taskforce Report, 2016) it’s well worth sitting up and taking notice.

In fact, it was demonstrated that having an adventure is more beneficial for your brain than taking up a sport. Perhaps because when you’re adventuring it’s not about competition with others but about you and the environment. You’re problem-solving, you’re watching the road, you’re planning, you’re meeting people, you’re free. It’s all a tonic to our over-stimulated, stressed daily existence.

I suppose it’s obvious really, when you look at it in evolutionary terms. Alan Ewert, Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, USA, explained that if you take the entire existence of humans on earth and equate it to a lifespan of 80 years, humans have spent approximately 79 years and 8 months in a natural environment, that means living outdoors and spending all our time close to rivers and the earth and animals. There’s even a word for it, ‘Biophilia’. So that’s where we feel most comfortable. Our minds are adapted to the environment, are a product of it.

A recurrent theme of the conference was that of resilience; how to promote better coping skills and recovery from traumatic experiences through the benefits of pursuing an outdoor lifestyle. There’s a lot of research currently around Post Traumatic Growth (a positive change after a traumatic experience) and evidence that adventuring can facilitate PTG in PTSD sufferers.

Guest speaker, Sir Charles Walker, KBE MP has been a campaigner for mental health issues and outspoken about his own battles with mental illness. He agreed that what is required is an adventure policy at the centre of government, and from that many more initiatives can be funded, more research carried out to enable more people to feel first-hand the benefits that we, as adventure riders, already enjoy.

If you want to find out more, you can follow the conversation on twitter or Instagram by searching on the hashtag #AdventureMind, or clicking here to go straight to the website.

Words: Louisa Swaden the Existential Biker
Images: Greg Childs Photography