A Whole9 guest post by James Murphy, a self-described nature-loving-hippie currently living in New Zealand who loves to play outside.
When I step outside into nature, it’s as though I’m stepping into a world that was designed for me to play and move in. There are trees that seem made for climbing, taunting me with their low-hanging branches. Rocks that have been set up with the perfect jumping distance between them daring me to give it a go. Fascinating trail heads that pique my curiosity asking me to figure out where the path leads to.
I’ve written previously on some of the benefits of spending time outside. Nature by itself is good for restoring your focus, helping you relax, improving cognitive function, and making you happy.
There’s an expanding body of evidence discussing how spending time in nature will improve our health, which I’ve both spoken and written about for the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand.
One of the easiest ways to follow through on the intention to spend more time outside is to combine time in nature with physical activity.
You need to exercise to be healthy. The exact amount and version of exercise that you undertake is up for individual debates, as different people have different requirements with different lifestyles to work around; but one thing is certain: the way you move is turning out to be pretty important.
One of the most interesting things highlighted in the Whole 9 movement series was the way the experts that were interviewed would program training (though they had the caveat of only selecting 5 movements). If the goal of training was simply for health and well-being the program was different than what they might program for somebody looking exclusively for performance and aesthetic goals.
So if you are training only for general health and fitness goals, there is no reason to focus entirely on performance and outcomes when it comes to physical activity. We need variety and an incorporation of various planes and axes of movement. You don’t need to spend all of your physical activity time in a gym.
Imagine, if you will, how you may have ascertained a decent level of fitness and strength even a few generations ago before you would have had easy access to the modern gyms on every corner of every street in every town. Certainly the average fitness level was much more impressive than it currently is. This is highlighted in the consistent decline in strength noticed when testing the physical capacity of kids.
Think about the extremes to both the low end (how common sedentary behaviour is) and the high end (think professional athletes) today compared with, say, the amount of physical work your grandparents were required to perform daily. Since the industrial revolution, our requirements for physical exertion have been declining. Despite the lack of abundant indoor training facilities we see today, from most all generations preceding us, people were likely to be more fit.
Barbells are awesome, but you can activate and overload muscle fibres by other means . You could pick up a log or rock, or sprint. These activities would stimulate muscle protein synthesis and induce adaptations. Our muscles don’t know the difference between a barbell and a log.
I’m not saying you should neglect the luxury of a well-equipped fitness centre, or change the base of your regimen from these fantastic locations; I’m simply shedding light on the fact that it is entirely possible and highly beneficial to train outdoors as well.
There are specific benefits from incorporating green exercise habits that extend beyond the basic benefits of physical activity.
1) It Makes You Feel Better About Yourself
Physical activity by itself tends to improve your mood, and we usually intuitively understand this to be true. With dopamine and endorphins flowing freely when we move our bodies, this positive feedback is often a sought-after reason for chasing down a good workout. Who doesn’t feel good after a good movement session?
As it turns out, exercising outdoors increases this effect, producing improvements in mood and increases in self-esteem above and beyond that of exercise alone. Green exercise makes you feel better than the same exercise performed indoors.
You might think that this requires you to spend a very long time outside or that you have to go on an epic journey through the woods and up over mountain passes to feel the awe and wonder than beautiful Mother Nature has to offer. But actually, this effect can be seen quickly, and even short bouts of exercise work done outside can result in more positive feelings.
If one of the reasons you’re moving and exercising in the first place is to improve your mood, add some outdoor movement in place of part of your current routine in order to get more bang for your buck. If you’re using exercise as a “stress-relief” then you should check your current baseline stress levels and adjust some other factors too.
2) It’s Easier
Exercise outdoors may reduce your rating of perceived exertion. This means compared to how you’d feel on a treadmill, walking at a brisk pace outdoors may feel less strenuous.
The environment you spend time within has a substantial effect on how you feel. If you don’t feel good, what you’re doing feels harder. How does carrying a load of heavy groceries to your car feel if you’ve just had an awesome day versus how it feels when you’re exhausted and just want to get home already? Hard. Annoying. Terrible. Your rating of perceived exertion is high.
Occasionally the sole purpose of physical activity is for fun – and it’s hard to enjoy what you’re doing when it feels like the activity you’re attempting is too hard to continue doing! Take your fun sessions outdoors and the natural environment is likely to catalyse this fun by making it feel less difficult.
This actually makes good sense from a psychoneuroimmunological perspective, when you consider that our thoughts result in neural chemical reactions which drive immune inflammatory responses, that inflammation makes us want to quit moving (aka makes movement feel harder), and that nature often makes you think happy thoughts.
3) You’re More Likely to Keep It Up
Exercising outdoors makes you more likely to continue to participate in physical activity in the future, and more likely to adhere to a program in general.
When it comes to exercise, consistency is key. Improving the likelihood that you’ll engage in regular physical activity and as a long-term practice is very important. It’s something that many practitioners and public health programs struggle with on a daily basis. Physical activity levels, on average, are declining despite increasing efforts of public health guidelines.
Take some of your exercise outside and it may improve your exercise frequency, enjoyment and adherence. If it’s more likely to make you participate often, and it makes you happy, this seems like quite a strong positive feedback loop!
4) It Adds Some Variety and Fun
When you think of exercising outdoors you may first imagine running or cycling through the city or a park. I’m not here to tell you that’s necessarily a poor choice – but there are better places to move, and more ways to do so.
A trail run is different than running on a sidewalk or footpath, just as cycling on the road is obviously different than mountain biking. It’s difficult to just go through the motions when you’re moving outside on a trail. If you were zoned out while running on a sidewalk, not having to think about where you place your foot, you’re not going to be able to enjoy what you’re doing because you’re barely even aware of what you’re doing. Moving on a trail stops you from mindlessly exercising and increases the likelihood that you’ll pay attention to your surroundings.
Walking through the woods is a great idea, whether the scenery is constantly changing or it’s just a change from your urban habitat. Doing some hill sprints is a good way to change things up too.
Have you ever tried practicing parkour or climbing a tree? I personally really enjoy these activities as they’re both fun and challenging. Rock climbing, swimming, playing ultimate Frisbee at a park – the options for trying something new outside are limitless.
You can even attempt to emulate what you would normally be doing, but outside; you don’t have to lift logs and rocks (but it is fun). Bring a Kettlebell or a sandbag outside, lift a tire or push a sled, or just do a regular bodyweight circuit out there.
Training in a sustainable way means training in exciting, novel, and varied environments – natural environments.
Convinced of the need for physical activity done in nature? Then switch out one of your indoor workouts this week for some outdoor activity. Or if you’re growing bored of your exercise routine, give yourself the freedom to engage in more playful, varied healthy movement out in nature.
James is a nutritionist and lifestyle consultant who works using a holistic (integrative) approach toward understanding human health. He is also a member of the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand.
As an amateur adventurer, James spends much of his time outdoors playing and exploring nature, which helps to fuel his appreciation for the importance of natural environments in improving our health as humans. He writes at EvolvedHuman.com. Follow him on Instagram: @PrimalRush)
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“Green exercise makes you feel better than the same exercise performed indoors.”
How true is that statement? For me, this comes in two forms of feeling better: not only in the quality of the air I am gasping for while working out which feels cleaner than the recycled air at the gym, but my brain is also getting a workout because of the constant variation found in the outdoors as well as the reward at the end (a feeling of satisfaction from reaching a viewpoint or attaining a new skill or conquering a boulder problem, etc.).
Interestingly, when I was a PT, I ran some experiments on a few clients, taking them for walks outside vs. getting them to walk on the treadmill. Wearing HR monitors, those on the treadmill had a HR like a metronome; very constant. At the same walking speed, outside, their HR’s were up and down all over the show, despite walking relatively constantly. This natural HR variation leads to a much better training effect.
Very good point, Gina!
There are a few reasons why, which I won’t get into, but spending time in nature can sort of act as a mindfulness-based stress reduction session. This will not doubt contribute to some of those mental benefits!
As you’ve mentioned, one of the best things about moving through nature lies in the beautiful places you can end up. Pick a hike up a mountain with an incredible view, and you’ll certainly be rewarded for your hard work :).
Thanks for the comment!
I agree with the variation. Going to a gym where everything is metal and designed to keep us more or less in a very direct movement, going out in nature helps to work out all the supporting muscle s and tendons. All the parts that generally get forgotten about at the gym.
Hey James, great article. I haven’t done much exercise in nature, although recently I stood by the river in our city, closed my eyes and breathed the atmosphere into my heart. Man it felt awesome. I’ve also done some barefoot yoga in the grass before. That was intense. It was winter and about 6am so the grass was freezing cold haha.
Funny I found this article because I was thinking the other day I need to connect with nature more. Even if it’s just paying more attention to the nature around me.
Paying more attention to the nature around you is a massive stepping stone toward rebuilding your connectedness to nature. You may have to force yourself to go outside at first, but once it becomes a part of your life, you won’t even have to think about trying to include nature time into your life — it will be automatic.
Think of nature exposure as a daily requirement, like a vitamin. Vitamin N.