If you want to clear your mind and improve your mood, walk around the park for 15 minutes.
Thankfully, it is summer which means the weather is perfect for spending time outdoors, soaking up sun rays, and moving your body. There has been a lot of hype and research about the relationship between depression and spending time in nature, so it is no surprise that “green exercise,” which means physical activity in nature, improves memory, concentration, and mood compared to exercising indoors.
Any kind of physical exercise, whether indoors or outdoors, is not only good for your physical health but also your mental health; however if you have the chance to exercise outside before it gets too hot, you should take it!
Nature can be a motivator to exercise
Research has shown that being outside, compared to inside, motivates people to exercise, and exercising outdoors makes more demanding exercise seem less difficult.
- In a study published last year from China, young, inactive people with obesity who started walking in a park or gym on alternate days reported feeling considerably less stress and enjoying exercise more when they walked outside.
- A study of older men and women who walked outside voluntarily exercised for about 30 minutes more during the week than people who walked inside.
- In a 2017 study, a group of healthy volunteers agreed to hike in the alpine mountains for three hours, and on a separate day, they repeated the effort on gym treadmills set to emulate the hike’s incline. They told researchers that hiking up the slope had felt less strenuous and left them feeling happier than hiking in the gym.
Individuals who choose to exercise in nature have a reduced perception of effort. Therefore, the nature element may help achieve a greater intensity of exercise without changing the perception of effort. If you perceive exercise to be easier, you may enjoy it more which can enhance your motivation and adherence to exercise.
Is being outdoors in our DNA?
For 99% of human history, we lived off the land and sought nature for basic survival needs and health as we were genetically designed to be hunter-gatherers in the great outdoors. As our hunter-gatherer era was replaced by machines and urban living and we lived off the land less, we continued to enjoy the outdoors for pleasure and physical activity. This can be seen from the vast amounts of climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, and endurance athletes who enjoy the great outdoors and green spaces.
Even if we don’t exercise outdoors, we still choose to dine “al fresco,” have picnics, go camping, watch movies and concerts in outdoor venues, hang at the beach, or enjoy a day on the boat; all leisurely outdoor activities. Although our hunter-gatherer years are over, maybe we are still genetically designed to be “hunter-gatherers” in the great outdoors by spending time in nature.
We are born with an emotional affiliation for nature and living things, which may mean as part of our genetic makeup, we are innately predisposed to desire contact with nature, and maybe green exercise should be used to facilitate physical exercise and improved mental health.
Mental health benefits of green exercise
Exercising outdoors in a green environment creates feelings of positive engagement and revitalization; we feel better outdoors than indoors. All types of green exercise activities also improve self-esteem and negative mood symptoms, such as stress, anger, and depression. Research shows that the first five minutes of green exercise appear to have the most significant impact on mood and self-esteem, meaning there is an immediate mental health benefit to exercising outdoors.
Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are all associated with stress levels and are known to decrease after being present in nature, suggesting that nature reduces the body’s two primary stress systems.
Exposure to Vitamin D, produced by the sun, is known to also have positive mental health benefits, such as improving mood. Seasonal affective disorder, characterized as having a low mood in the winter months, is often correlated with low levels of Vitamin D due to less sunshine and less ability to spend time outdoors due to the winter conditions.
It is important to mention that although exercising outdoors is good for your body, mind, and mood if you are struggling with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, outdoor exercise is not considered a treatment or a cure for your mental health disorder. Rather it is a positive coping skill you can use to improve your mood and mental well-being alongside medications and therapy.
Barriers to getting into the outdoors
Since it is summer and the weather is in good spirits, it is easy to encourage individuals to lather on sunscreen and go outside to exercise, but unfortunately, there are barriers to getting outdoors, just like there are barriers to seeking mental health treatment. Unfortunately, not everyone lives in a safe community or has an accessible outdoor space close to their home.
Not everyone has transportation to drive to a safe outdoor space, and furthermore, socioeconomic status also alters local green space usage for physical activity. For example, individuals living within higher socioeconomic neighborhoods often have safer green spaces and more tax dollars that go towards maintaining these green spaces and having more footbridges to safely connect outdoor spaces to roads without having to cross traffic.
As a result, we can come together as a community to emphasize that the outdoors should be a safe and encouraging space for all individuals to have access. We can come together to ensure that neighborhood urban parks are maintained and safe and are developed to have more open play areas where more sports may be played, increasing opportunities for exercise. We also must protect Mother Nature by not littering, vandalizing, or destroying natural ecosystems. We should be granted the equal ability to get outside and exercise.
And lastly, be sure to plan your outings early in the morning or at dust when the hotter temperatures have subsided. You will also want to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated as the summer months have been the hottest on record.