How Outdoor Exercise Boosts Mental Health
Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a rut, or like your mental health could use a boost? You’re not alone. According to the World Health Organization, over 450 million people worldwide experience mental illness, making it one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. While mental illness can be a complex and multifaceted issue, there’s one simple activity that can help: exercising outdoors.
In recent years, there has been a growing body of research showing that exposing oneself to nature can have significant mental health benefits, ranging from reducing stress and anxiety to improving mood and self-esteem (Barton & Pretty, 2010; Bratman, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012). And when you combine that exposure with physical activity, you get an even bigger boost.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the ways that outdoor exercise can help boost mental health, why it’s such an effective tool, and how you can incorporate it into your everyday life.
The Benefits of Outdoor Exercise for Mental Health
Why does exercise matter for mental well-being? There are actually multiple reasons. For one thing, physical activity releases endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that can help to improve mood and reduce feelings of pain (Meeusen & De Meirleir, 1995). Exercise also increases the heart rate and circulation throughout the body, which can have a calming effect on the mind (Levine, 2005).
But why does outdoor exercise specifically seem to be more beneficial than indoor exercise in some cases? One possible answer is related to the concept of attention restoration. Attention restoration theory (ART) suggests that the constant stimuli and demands of modern life can lead to what’s known as directed attention fatigue, or the exhaustion of the limited resource of attention that we have (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). By contrast, natural environments like parks or forests have been found to be more restorative and relaxing for our attention, because they tend to have “soft fascinations” that don’t require as much effort or concentration (Berto, 2014).
In other words, exercising in nature can help to rejuvenate our attentional resources, allowing us to feel more relaxed and less stressed. This is one reason why even small doses of nature exposure – like looking at nature scenes for a few minutes – have been found to be beneficial for mental health (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008).
How Outdoor Exercise Enhances Those Benefits
So we know that exercise and nature exposure can be good for your mental health. But what about combining the two – does outdoor exercise have an even bigger impact than either activity alone?
Several studies suggest that it does. For example, one study compared outdoor walking groups to indoor gym groups, and found that the outdoor walkers had higher self-reported feelings of well-being overall (Thompson Coon et al., 2011). Another study compared participants who exercised outdoors to those who exercised indoors, and found that the outdoor group had higher levels of revitalization and increased energy (Reed & Buck, 2009).
One possible explanation for these findings is that exercising outdoors can lead to more “immersion” in the environment, which increases our sense of connection to the natural world. Another possibility is related to the idea of “green exercise,” or physical activity that takes place in a natural environment. Green exercise has been found to enhance mood, self-esteem, and overall well-being more than indoor exercise, possibly because it offers a sense of escape and novelty (Barton & Pretty, 2010).
Nature and Mental Health: The Science Behind It
So we know that outdoor exercise can boost mental health. But why is nature exposure so restorative in the first place?
One possible theory is that we evolved to be connected to nature, and that our modern lifestyle has disrupted that connection. This idea is known as biophilia, or the innate human tendency to seek out connections with other living creatures and natural elements (Wilson, 1984).
Research supports the idea that nature exposure can have a calming effect on the mind. For example, one study found that participants who were shown images of natural scenes had lower levels of activity in the part of the brain associated with depression (Caggiano, Paraskevopoulos, & Kirsch, 2019). Another study found that participants who walked in a forest had lower levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – than those who walked in a city (Park et al., 2010).
Some researchers have even gone so far as to suggest that nature exposure can be a powerful tool for treating mental illness. For example, ecotherapy programs that incorporate nature activities like gardening or hiking have been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety (Mind.org.uk, 2021).
How to Incorporate Outdoor Exercise into Your Routine
So how can you take advantage of the benefits of outdoor exercise for mental health? There are a few steps you can take.
- Find outdoor exercise options that work for you. Depending on where you live and what your physical abilities are, there may be different options for outdoor exercise. Try to find something that you enjoy and that challenges you just the right amount.
- Make it a regular part of your routine. Consistency is key when it comes to exercise. Try to set aside a specific time each week for outdoor exercise, or join a group that meets regularly.
- Use motivation strategies and accountability. It can be easy to skip workouts if you’re not feeling motivated. Consider using strategies like tracking your progress, rewarding yourself for meeting goals, or having a workout buddy to keep you accountable.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a simple and effective way to boost your mental health, look no further than outdoor exercise. By combining the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise with the restorative power of nature, you can give your mind the break it needs to feel refreshed and revitalized. So find an outdoor workout that works for you, get outside, and feel the benefits for yourself.