Exercise of any kind can be beneficial to our health and fitness, but exercise in nature, called ‘green exercise,’ can provide additional physical and mental health benefits. As we swarm the treadmills at the local gym, perhaps we should consider hitting the trails, the park or the lake, too.
“When you go outside, you have a more rich, holistic benefit to your exercise routine,” said Jean Larson, Ph.D., director of nature-based therapies at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “Green and traditional exercises are both beneficial, but there is a bump in the satisfaction and overall impact of the experience when you go outside.”
Researchers believe that benefit, in part, is thanks to something called the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests humans have an innate attraction to nature.
So just how much does exercise in natural environments affect our health and wellbeing?
1. Green exercise can improve self-esteem and boost mood
A systemic review of green exercise studies found that physical activity in natural environments translated to “greater feelings of revitalization and encouragement” and reduced tension, anger, confusion and depression. Even just looking at photos of nature scenes while working out on a treadmill indoors proved more satisfactory than running on a treadmill alone.
2. Green exercise improves physical health
People who lived closer to nature (.6 miles versus 1.8 miles) had improved morbidity, particularly for diseases like asthma, depression and musculoskeletal problems.
Green exercise has also been linked to good cardiovascular health and reduced diastolic and systolic blood pressure.
3. Access to nature may increase our likelihood to exercise
A UK study found that people living in environments with the most green space were most likely to reach weekly exercise recommendations. Another study found that elderly adults who exercised outside exercised more than their counterparts. Closer to home, 9th grade Minnesotans with access to non-motorized trails had increased physical activity rates compared to their peers.
Larson puts it this way: coexistence with nature is absolutely vital for our survival. The natural world provides food and water, sunlight, oxygen and other sources of nutrients we rely on. Work, school and the perpetually busy nature of modern society take the place of biological stressors. These present-day “predators” are pushing humans back to nature.
“We live in a world with lots of focused attention,” Larson said. “We have the ringing of the bell, the ding of a new text. These are adrenaline-inducing activities. Our bodies tense up as they would in a threatening situation. That amps up our innate attraction to nature, to get away from these stressors.”
There is no magic formula for green exercise. It could mean walking the dog, weeding the garden or jogging around the park. But the takeaway is the same: connecting to nature through intentional, physical activity with a sustainable, purpose-driven framework allows us to reconnect (and disconnect) with the world.
“I think of green exercise as a mental massage,” Larson said. “Your mind is turning off, and you give yourself a chance to restore your energy and concentration. Green exercise allows your body, mind and soul to reboot.”