green exercise: how outdoor activity can benefit your health

Hello all! Today I am sharing on the blog something that I am very passionate about. In fact, it is so near and dear to my heart, that I spent almost a year and a half conducting individual research on this very topic for my senior honors thesis at the University of Michigan.

Growing up with parents who both hold environmental science degrees, you can imagine that most of my time was spent being active and outdoors. Furthermore, an appreciation for the environment was instilled in me at a very young age. As I moved into high school I began to develop a passion for health, nutrition, and fitness. My childhood background eventually led me to explore the connection between the environment and human health in college.

As a future physical therapist, I am especially interested in effective interventions to promote positive behavior changes & active lifestyles, and I am of the strong opinion that the outdoor, natural world can help with just that. As some of you already know, I studied abroad in New Zealand last summer and spent a significant amount of time in the “bush” (as Kiwis call it). During this time I experienced feelings of contentment, satisfaction, enjoyment of simply being in nature. These anecdotal experiences in nature have led myself and others to scientifically investigate this apparent connection between nature and human health and well-being. This is all great you may think, but you might also be wondering why this area of scientific study is useful and/or relevant to today's pressing societal issues. Let's first turn to the discussion of mental health and general lifestyle choices of the average American citizen...

Research has shown that mental health issues on are on the rise.

To illustrate this point, let me give you some statistics:

  • 16.1 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2015
  • More than 1/3 report their stress has increased since 2014
  • 24% experienced extreme stress in 2015 (compared to 18% in 2014)

These numbers are striking and health professionals and researchers have been asking why there have seen such a dramatic change in psychological well-being. Perhaps we can look to how most U.S. adults spend their time to explain some of these issues. Let me give you a few more statistics...

  • On average, a U.S. adult spends 86.9% of their time indoors
  • They also spend, on average, 10 hrs and 39 minutes consuming media per day
  • Only 21% of adults get 2.5 hrs of physical activity/week, which is the minimum recommended amount of physical activity by the Physical Activity Guide lines

One way healthcare professionals and others have sought to improve societal health and well-being is through encouraging regular physical activity. Some well-known benefits of physical activity are...

  • Reduction in risk for chronic illnesses such as obesity, heart disease
  • Reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Improvement in mood

Regardless of these widely known benefits, the majority of adults still fail to meet physical activity recommendations.

Here are a couple of reasons why that might be:

  • Many people view exercise as a chore that’s difficult to do
  • People feel they don’t have time in a task-oriented & busy society

The solution could be found outdoors, enter green exercise.

Research has consistently shown that time spent in nature or viewing nature can be beneficial to cognitive functioning, improve mood, life satisfaction, amongst many other things. To read more about how nature specifically can benefit your health check out this blog post!

Because of the clear association of nature and physical activity with well-being individually, researchers have also explored the benefits of physical activity and nature together, aka green exercise. In fact, many studies have suggested that green exercise may provide an even greater benefit than physical activity or nature alone. Furthermore, nature can also act as as a facilitator of physical activity. This is especially relevant as most structured physical activity in the western world has shifted indoors (gyms, sports halls, and within the home), but indoor physical activity (particularly fitness centers or gyms) is not free and can also be intimidating or un-enjoyable to some.

Green exercise could increase overall enjoyment of physical activity and reduce perception of exertion. This in turn, could increase someone's motivation to exercise more regularly long-term. Additionally, it is more widely available, often at no cost, to the general population.

So what are the benefits of green exercise?

Many of the correlated benefits of green exercise overlap with physical activity and nature, however, research has shown that these improvements in well-being are more amplified when compared to just physical activity or nature alone.

  • Reduction in stress
  • Increase in positive mood
  • Increase in energy levels or vitality
  • Increased ability to focus
  • Reduction in anxiety
  • Associated with stronger intrinsic motivations (important for maintaining healthy behavior changes long term!)

Here are some ways that you can incorporate more green into your physical activity routine:

  • Take your workouts outside
  • Learn a new outdoor sport (biking, swimming, skiing, kayaking, climbing, etc.)
  • Swap a lunch or dinner date with a friend for a hike or walk instead

So perhaps you want to be more active, but you hate the gym or can't afford it. Maybe, you have a hard time maintaining a consistent physical activity routine or you might just be looking for ways to mentally rejuvenate yourself, unplug from the media, and get outdoors. In any of these cases, green exercise can benefit you in significant ways! Get out in nature, take a hike, anything, to improve physical, psychological, and/or maybe even your spiritual well-being! I hope you found this post useful and interesting, comment below with your favorite outdoor activity :)