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?
Nature and Psychological Well-being
A study called The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Green Exercise was done to explore the synergy between adopting physical activities while also being directly exposed to nature. In that study, they found that both physical activity and nature can positively affect physical and psychological well-being.
The researchers broke nature exposure into three levels of engagement with increasing benefits at each level. Those levels are:
- Viewing nature: as through a window, or in a painting.
- Being in the presence of nearby nature: which may be incidental to some other activity, such as walking or cycling to work, reading on a garden seat, or talking to friends in a park.
- Active participation and involvement with nature: such as gardening, farming, trekking, camping, cross-country running, or horse-riding.
That study concluded that there is evidence that indicates nature can make positive contributions to our health, it can also help us recover from pre-existing stresses or problems. The coolest part, in my opinion, is that exposure to nature can have an “immunizing effect” that will then protect us from future stresses, and can help us concentrate and think more clearly.
Nature and Chronic Pain
In a different type of study called Patient’s perceptions of Green Exercise, in the setting of chronic pain they found that 47% of people, ages 50–70 years, had some type of chronic pain. Of those respondents, the most frequent pain complaint was back pain (65%). But 95% of those participants reported that nature improved their mood and reduced their chronic pain symptoms.
There was a hurdle in this study, though. A hurdle that likely faces many of us city dwellers. Only 75% of the study participants reported that green spaces were easily accessible to them on a regular basis. That leaves 25% of them in need of an alternative treatment.
Not Just Playtime
For those of you who think you can only get serious fitness results from working out in a formal gym setting, there is a study that looked at the affective outcomes during and after high-intensity exercise in outdoor green and indoor gym settings. This study compared the psychological effects of high-intensity exercise in outdoor green and indoor gym settings in 22 adult runners using a randomized repeated measures design.
Affect and perceived exertion were assessed before, during, and after a 6000-m run. The runners were told to run the second half of the distance at maximum effort. After doing the same run outside and again in the gym, the physiological outcomes did not differ at any point between the settings.
This study suggests that runners experience the same positive affective responses to high-intensity exercise in both a natural outdoor environment and an indoor gym. And I probably don’t have to make you do this same test on yourself to know which setting you would enjoy more, do I?
The general decline in physical activity worldwide is resulting in a huge increase in physical disability, disease, and a rising number of cases of mental ill-health. So, it is essential that we find ways to encourage everyone to get more movement into their lives on a daily basis.
It is essential that we find ways to encourage everyone to get more movement into their lives on a daily basis.
This idea is not new. For 99% of our existence on this planet, not only have we “lived off the land” and relied on nature for our basic survival and health, but we have also used it for pleasure and fun. More recently rock climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, and endurance athletes of all types have used the great outdoors and green spaces for their chosen sport. They have found that being outside not only increases their enjoyment but also improves their adherence to a fitness program. Now we are finding that it may also encourage positive physical activity behaviors which are likely to produce greater health gains.
One hypothesis is that we humans are born with an emotional connection to other living organisms, which may mean that part of our genetic makeup is innately predisposed to desire contact with nature. This would explain why green exercise is so effective at facilitating physical activity that also improves health. Because it can:
- Increase physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion.
- Reduce stress.
- Remove mental fatigue.
- Improve mood and self-esteem.
So, the quick and dirty tip in all of this is that exercise within green spaces and the great outdoors has the potential to help us address health challenges facing us city dwellers and should not be just looked at as a playground for those who seek the thrills of extreme sports, but rather as a location that can be visited by all of us.
I for one hope that by encouraging more and more fit folks to get out and enjoy some green exercise (or even simply the great outdoors), city planners and the people who live there will continue that evolutionary connection with nature and also take steps to not only maintain it but fight to increase it.
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