Can Green Exercise Really Improve Your Mental and Physical Health?

Green exercise is on the rise, as more people seek to improve their mental and physical health. Learn about the benefits of exercise in nature and what key studies have found.

The studies agree that mental and physical health can be improved by spending time in nature or exercising. But green exercise incorporates both of these elements to provide you with a healthier, mentally happier self that exercise and nature can’t deliver independently.

What is Green Exercise? 

Green exercise is a term coined in 2003 that is used to define the benefit of exercise in nature. Natural environments are known for promoting psychological and physical health, and evidence also points to nature’s ability to help:

  • Lower stress
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve cognition
  • Improve concentration

You can perform multiple outdoor exercises that fall into the green exercise definition.

woman doing outdoor yoga - one of many forms of green exercise

Types of Green Exercise

Some people cringe at the thought of stepping into a gym, staring at a mirror or wall, and lifting weights. Green exercise has multiple forms that are sure to cater to a person’s exercise preference while also being outside.

Here are just a few of the ways to get more exercise outdoors.

  • Go for a bike ride with the family
  • Join an outdoor yoga class
  • Take a nature hike
  • Go kayaking
  • Setup an outdoor gym area in your backyard
  • Tour the botanical gardens

And the benefits of exercise in nature spread to all of these outdoor activities.

What are the Benefits of Exercising in Nature?

The outdoors offers many benefits on its own, but when you mix in exercise, the benefits are increased further. A few of the many benefits that you’ll enjoy when you engage in green exercise are:

  • Vitamin D Production
  • Improved Mood
  • Fewer Distractions
  • Improved Energy

We’ll take a closer look at each one.

group doing tai kwon do in nature

Vitamin D Production

Being out in the sun will help your body produce a key vitamin that many are deficient in, Vitamin D. This vitamin plays a key role in the body’s regulation of phosphate and calcium, which are essential for muscle, teeth, and bone health. 

The “sunshine vitamin” can promote weight loss and even reduced depression in one study.

Vitamin D is one of the most important in immune system health, too.

Improve Mood

Feeling depressed or down? Exercise and nature have both demonstrated the ability to improve mood. The NIH states that exercise can help:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce depression
  • Improve mood
  • Improve self-esteem

Physical exercise boosts the body’s endorphin levels, which are the level of chemicals in the body that trigger a positive feeling and reduce stress.

Nature also has the potential to improve your mood by reducing stress, fear, and anxiety. Calming nature sounds improve mood even further.

Adding nature and exercise into one provides a synergistic effect that allows you to feel better mentally and physically.

Improved Energy

Exercise helps fight fatigue even though you may feel exhausted after an exercise session. When you exercise, you’re producing endorphins and norepinephrine, which can both relax you and energize you.

Plus, your sleep quality will improve as an additional benefit, leading to you feeling more energized.

Being outdoors for just twenty minutes is enough to improve your energy in the same way that a cup of coffee does.

Fewer Distractions

two young women jogging on a trail with trees in the background

Depending on how far in nature you go, there may be no cell towers or distractions. Screen time is a major distraction, but distractions are very limited when you’re out in nature. You’re able to clear your mind and focus on the activity you’re doing rather than be distracted by text messages, calls, or even social media.

The lack of distractions also offers mental relief, which is something everyone can benefit from.

And there are also other benefits that go beyond your health. National parks allow for easy access to some of the most beautiful landscapes available, and compared to other forms of exercise; green exercise is low cost.

Precautions to Take When Exercising In Nature

man dressed in jogging clothes putting on sunscreen

If you’re going to exercise in nature, it’s important to take precautions first. The sun is beneficial, but it’s also a risk if you don’t take the proper precautions. The items that you’ll need when in nature are:

  • Sunscreen with a higher SPF
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Walking or running shoes
  • Water bottle

You should sip water every 15 o 20 minutes. If you start feeling weak, seek out shade until you cool down. Bug spray is optional and will depend on where you plan on going outdoors. If there is a body of water nearby, bug sprays will make the experience much more pleasant.

Do Research Studies Prove That Exercising Outdoors Is Better Than Indoors?

What are the benefits of doing green exercise? Green exercise research has been attempting to answer this question for years, and the findings point to exercising outdoors being primarily better than indoor exercise.

Three main studies of note should be considered:

1. The Benefits of Exercise in the Great Outdoors (University of Essex, 2013)

A study conducted in 2013 by the School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, wanted to determine how a green exercise environment can benefit everyone. The study focused on the psychological changes and alterations that are associated with green exercise.

The study notes that while people used to be outside often to farm and forage, a select group has continued to exercise outdoors. What the study suggests is that:

  • Exercises in nature felt easier and allowed for greater exertion than indoors
  • Mood seems to be enhanced even when visual depictions of nature were used rather than being outdoors
  • Compared to exercising in a gym, outdoor exercise increases positive engagement, self-esteem and also offers revitalization 

Researchers concluded that nature exercises improved self-esteem, mood, restored mental fatigue, reduced stress, and even increased enjoyment.

One study found that Europeans that lived in a greener environment had a 40% lower risk of obesity and were three times more likely to be physically active.

2. The Best Dose of Nature & Green Exercise (University of Essex, 2010)

2010 multi-study analysis from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society, Department of Biological Sciences aimed to determine how much green exercise was needed best dose of nature and green exercise for mental health. 

The study showed short- and long-term health benefits of green exercise and analyzed data from 10 studies involving 1,252 participants.

The study concluded that green exercise had a great effect on the subject’s mental health. 

  • Self-esteem and mood were improved across all age groups.
  • Younger age groups and the mentally ill had the most positive improvement in self-confidence
  • Even a shorter duration of exercise showed significant improvements. 

Interestingly, the presence of water offered a greater improvement on self-esteem and health than when no presence of water was indicated.

3. The Mental And Physical Health Outcomes of Green Exercise (University of Essex, 2005)

2005 study from the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, Colchester, UK wanted to determine the combined benefit of physical exercise and exposure to nature. The study involved presenting a sequence of images to five groups of 20 subjects while they were on the treadmill.

Four scenes were tested:

  • Urban pleasant
  • Urban unpleasant
  • Rural pleasant
  • Rural unpleasant

Mood, self-esteem, and blood pressure were measured during the study. 

The pleasant scenes improved self-esteem significantly and at a level much higher than the non-pleasant scenes when compared to the control group. 

Researchers concluded that green exercise had a positive effect on participants.

two happy seniors speed walking in nature

Summary

Exercise in nature will improve your results, make you happier, reduce depression, and inspire you to visit locations you may have otherwise never visited before. 

If you’re trying to find a way to enjoy exercise and be outdoors more, give green exercise a try. You’ll be able to reap the benefits of exercise and nature at the same time.

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