Near my house is a bike and walking trail that runs along a small creek. It includes several boardwalks that cross over open marshland, as well as tunnels and bridges that cross under or over busy streets. It also links several parks to one another. The trail winds its way along the creek through woods and neighborhoods, ending miles away at the Minnesota River.
This trail is full of runners, people walking their dog, and lots of cyclists. It’s where I used to run, but now it’s where I walk or venture further from home on my bike. This trail is where I choose to exercise—partly because it takes me out into nature and partly because I come back feeling better from having exercised outdoors.
Sometimes when it gets really cold out, I’ll go to the gym. I can ride on a bike with a screen that takes me through quaint French villages or jog on a treadmill that ticks off the miles through Yosemite’s wooded trails and meadows. Despite the beautiful graphics and the fact that I got a workout, I just don’t feel the same as if I went outside. And apparently there’s a reason for that.
A great deal of research has focused on the impact of exercising outdoors, a practice dubbed green exercise. Numerous studies have pointed out some of the benefits of taking your workout outside, including:
- It can improve your mental health by helping to reduce stress, improving your mood, promoting better self-esteem, and enhancing your perception of personal health.
- Green exercise tends to lower your level of perceived exertion. This means that you may work harder outdoors, but it feels easier. This can translate into a more effective and enjoyable workout.
- In addition to mental health benefits, Japanese researchers who have studied Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, have discovered that walking or hiking in wooded areas can lower your blood pressure and heart rate and boost immunity. In addition, they’ve found that it can lower the stress-related hormone cortisol and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes your body’s ability to relax.
- Being active outdoors is enjoyable for most people, which helps increase their motivation, participation levels, and frequency of activity.
- Being outdoors also increases your exposure to sunlight, which helps your body make Vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential in helping your body absorb calcium and other minerals necessary for bone and muscle health. In addition, exposure to sunlight helps your brain release greater levels of a hormone called serotonin, which is connected to enhanced mood and feelings of calm.
Despite the benefits of green exercise, sometimes getting out into nature or just getting outdoors is easier said than done. Where you live will play a role in the accessibility and ease of being in outdoor spaces. For me, winter days that are 15 degrees below zero are a challenge, but for others, living in an urban neighborhood, safety issues, or not living near parks or other natural areas can be equally challenging.
If you look in your area, you may find helpful resources. Check the local parks and recreation department, community bulletin boards, websites for outdoor classes, your local fitness center, nearby bike and hiking trail systems, and your city website for the availability of community gardening plots.
The bottom line is that no matter how you do it, exercise is good for your health. However, when you combine exercise with the great outdoors, it can offer up even more health benefits. Whether it’s walking around your neighborhood with a friend or hitting a local bike trail, green exercise is great.