There is growing daily scientific research emphasising the mental and physical benefits of exercising outside.
This new form of training is offering many people the opportunity to reconnect with the great outdoors and improve their emotional wellbeing whilst getting fit. In our fast paced, modern world full of urgent demands, it can feel impossible to switch off and stop the internal chatter of our brain. If you work in an office all day and exercise in a gym, you’re unlikely to gain the benefits the great outdoors has to offer. The gym exercises your body, but what of your often neglected mind which also needs training and exercising to cope with stress levels?
Outdoor fitness is a natural and environmentally friendly alternative to addressing modern society’s mental and physical fitness as there is considerable research linking the two. Surrounding yourself by nature can even aid physical recovery from illnesses and outdoor exercise on arrival from a long haul flight has even been proven to reduce jet lag. Green exercise can cause a measurable increase in a person’s mood and self-esteem in all ages and reduces the prevalence of physical inactivity that leads to higher rates of illnesses such as heart disease, obesity and heart related illnesses in urban areas. According to Julia Thrift; ‘There is increasing evidence that access to high quality green spaces can produce measurable improvements to stress levels in a relatively short space of time’ Journal of Public Mental Health (2005).
So why is green fitness so good for you?
I recently took part in an outdoors urban gym class in the middle of central London as an experiment to see whether the same mental and physical health benefits of exercising in a park were applicable to training in a metropolis. Interestingly, all the calming and relaxing side effects of exercising in a park were absent in the urban gym class. Training in a park with no noise other than birdsong and wildlife busying around you allows your brain to switch off from daily stresses of modern life and to reconnect with your body. It enables you to focus on the instructors exercises, freeing your brain from any worries and troubles. Exercising outside in a park invokes feelings of freedom and a lack of boundaries that you do not get inside. At the end of an outdoor park training session, those who were worried they needed music to motivate them to exercise harder admitted they did not even miss it because exercising without music allows your brain the space it needs to re connect with your body and emotional wellbeing.
In direct contrast to all the known health benefits of outdoor fitness; exercising in the middle of a busy city had the total opposite effect on my mental wellbeing. I was still training outside so in theory, I should have felt relaxed but instead I was stressed and anxious for the full hour. Interestingly I did not train near any green spaces which are reputed to calm your brain. As I tried to hear the instructor whilst dodging cars, bikes and tourists, I was told to do burpees and press ups on concrete instead of soft grass. Instead of laughing with my team members as I would in the park, I felt irritable and struggled to breathe deeply because of the high levels of pollution. Part of the class involved crossing busy roads and whilst waiting for traffic lights to change, we did squats up a wall but as soon as the lights changed, we’d be on the move again. I felt hurried and rushed and wasn’t allowed to finish my repetitions of the exercises, leaving me feeling as if I’d failed; a feeling that does not promote positive mental wellbeing. There was no wildlife to watch whilst exercising. Instead, I kept looking at my watch, wishing the session would end. It was the total antithesis of exercising in green surroundings and I finished the session without the usual rush of endorphins I experience when I train in the park. The difference between both exercises sessions was obvious; I had exercised my entire body but hadn’t allowed my mind the precious space it needed to de clutter, relax and make sense of the day’s events.
There is also a strong correlation between the emotional journey we go on whilst exercising in a green space and our physical wellbeing. Even in the winter months when it’s challenging to embrace the cold, the physical benefits from exercising outdoors when temperatures drop are greater than in the heat, as our bodies tolerate activity better in the cold and we can exercise for longer and burn more fat. It is now thought that exercising outside can burn up to 30% more calories than indoors due to battling against the weather and uneven terrain. Running outside also uses more energy as the lack of air resistance makes it less of an effort to run indoors on a treadmill.
A systematic review carried out by The Peninsula College of Medicine shows exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Medical practitioners are starting to include outdoors exercise as part of holistic treatments for those suffering depression and similar psychological ailments. Scientists are now calling for doctors to prescribe ‘green exercise’ for patients who suffer from mental illness. Dr Jo Barton, a sports scientist who conducted a study for the University of Essex said that as well as protecting against future health threats, outdoor exercise could even increase life expectancy. Of mental health patients, she said: ‘Too often the first option is to prescribe medication when the medical profession could be encouraging patients to join a walking group instead, for example’.
With constant advances in medical treatments; we’re only now realising that all along we’ve been surrounded by a natural remedy to help alleviate modern day stress. So why not get outdoors and embrace it? Your mental and physical wellbeing will thank you for it!