Simply being outdoors can lower our levels of stress, our pulse rate, and even our blood pressure. But what happens when we exercise in a green space?
I was at the beach the other day with some friends and after a rousing game of “apprehend the frisbee before it nails an unsuspecting stranger,” we all settled on the sand to chat and observe our fellow beachgoers.
Being that I am a movement and fitness nerd, I started doing a mental tally of how many people were either frolicking (i.e. moving their bodies) or napping (i.e. recovering their bodies). It was basically a 70/30 split in favor of frolicking. And of the 70% of frolickers, easily 99% of them were smiling, laughing, and completely unaware of their current rating of perceived exertion (told you I am a nerd).
99% of outdoor frolickers are smiling, laughing, and completely unaware of their current rating of perceived exertion.
Observing this got me wondering about the direct and indirect effect of simply being outdoors—in the sunshine, flanked by trees on one side and the ocean on the other, with mountains off in the distance—and how much happier these folks appeared compared to the determined and somewhat dour (in contrast) faces I had seen earlier at the gym. Not only did this setting make me grateful to live where I do but it also inspired me to dig into some research on how green spaces and exercise can have a synergistic effect on us humans.
Our Historic Relationship with Nature
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors co-existed with the outdoor natural environment for tens of thousands of years, and it is hypothesized that this provides us present-day humans with our innate desire to be in and around nature. And we don’t even have to get in the Wayback Machine to see this. All we really need to do is leave the city (or perhaps fly to a part of the world where being outside is the default rather than the exception) to see this in action.
A number of the papers and studies I came across during my research said that in addition to satisfying this primal instinct, nature also provides an environment that does not require our direct attention (a tree doesn't have any push notifications), giving the great outdoors some wonderful restorative properties that encourage our recovery from mental fatigue and attention restoration.
Although in urban settings fewer and fewer people are getting involved in the natural environment on a daily basis, many people do seek out green spaces and get involved in outdoor activities. Currently, there is an increasing trend of fit folks signing up for outdoor endurance challenges like obstacle course races, cross-country and trail runs, and mountain bike events, but paradoxically, there is an even greater number of sedentary folks who are simply getting insufficient physical activity to meet even our meager current health guidelines.
Recent reviews indicate that getting out and exercising outdoors appears to be a lot more beneficial to mental health over the same indoor activities, and natural environments have a greater impact on psychological health, especially when an element of play and having fun is involved. So much so that a term ‘green exercise’ was adopted to describe the health benefit that happens when we exercise in nature. The term was adopted in 2003 and then published through peer-review in 2005.
Recent reviews indicate that getting out and exercising outdoors appears to be a lot more beneficial to mental health over indoor activities.
In that 2005 paper, five groups of 20 participants were shown a sequence of 30 scenes projected on a wall while they exercised on a treadmill. This sounds a little ridiculous and boring but please hang in there, the findings are cool.
Four categories of scenes were shown to the treadmill-bound participants: rural pleasant, rural unpleasant, urban pleasant, and urban unpleasant. There was also a control group who was running on a treadmill while staring at a blank wall. No rural or urban photos for them.
For the test, blood pressure and the psychological measures of self-esteem and mood were measured before and after the intervention. In the end, there was a clear effect of both exercise and the different scenes on the participant’s blood pressure, self-esteem, and mood.
- Exercise alone significantly reduced blood pressure, increased self-esteem, and had a positive significant effect on mood measures (chalk one up for exercise!)
- Pleasant rural and urban scenes produced a significantly greater positive effect on self-esteem than the exercise alone group (showing the synergistic effect of green exercise in both rural and urban environments).
- But, by contrast, unpleasant rural and urban scenes reduced the positive effects of exercise on self-esteem.
- And finally, the unpleasant rural scenes had the most dramatic effect, depressing the beneficial effects of exercise on three different measures of mood.
The researchers interpreted that final result as threats to the countryside have a greater negative effect on mood than the areas that were already urban and already unpleasant. This led the researchers to conclude that “green exercise has both important public and environmental health consequences.”
Living in Rural vs. Urban Areas
According to the 2010 census from the U.S. Census Bureau, 80.7% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. This is an increase from 79% in 2000. Similarly, in the UK, more than 80% of people live in urban areas (2004), though there has been greater growth in rural areas in the past few years.
Urban settings, simply by definition, have less nature than rural ones (although many large cities are making a greater effort to include more green space). But still, according to research and anecdotal evidence alike, less green space means we may have reduced mental well-being and less opportunity to recover from mental stress.
The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness is poised to be the greatest cause of ill-health by 2020.
The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness is poised to be the greatest cause of ill-health by 2020. This is due in part to some other unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, and alcohol consumption, which they believe are coping mechanisms for both mental ill-health and general stress but also come with their own unhealthy consequences.