As you make your way to the gym for your daily, weekly – or for some of us, monthly – workout, take a moment to consider an outdoor exercise routine instead. I have been known to buy ten-card passes to a local gym and although undoubtedly pulling and lifting weights is good for my muscle strength and flexibility, I realized I enjoyed the ride on my bicycle to the gym and back more than the time spent in the gym itself. Crowded facilities, the intense concentration of people completing their workout in near silence and the sweaty, humid atmosphere is not always that appealing.
In contrast, the enjoyment I get from the sharp fresh air of winter, seeing trees springing to life early in the year, flowers in bloom in the summer or the mulchy smell of leaves in the autumn is irreplaceable. Every time I walk into the woods I’m known to exclaim how lovely ‘the smell of oxygen’ is. (Of course I’m not really smelling oxygen, but I’m aware of the superior quality of the air, the scents of the forest and how calm and at peace I feel after a walk.)
It’s encouraging, then, to hear of growing evidence pointing to the benefits of ‘green exercise’, something we seem to be intuitively aware of. If you can get outside, incorporating nature into your exercise routine has the potential to make you feel healthier physically, mentally and emotionally. And if that sounds like something that appeals to you, then here are five reasons to ditch that gym and head for the woods.
1) It clears the mind
It’s been reported that twenty minutes outdoors is as good as a cup of coffee. Deep breathing promotes the release of brain chemicals that help us feel happier and more relaxed whilst delivering vital oxygen and nutrients to our body tissues. The result: greater mental clarity and energy levels. You won’t find that quality of air in a stuffy, often overheated gym where everyone else is breathing the same air as deeply as you as they pound along on the treadmill.
When you can think more clearly — when you’re engaged in green exercise — the manifest irritants and distractions that invade our thoughts fall away and problem solving seems to come easier. I rarely finish a run or walk in the woods or by the ocean without feeling my mind has relaxed and become calm enough to tackle the rest of the day with renewed vigour. And there are very real benefits to inhaling the ‘clearing’ essences of pine or fir or the calming and uplifting scents of summer flowers.
2) It’s cheaper than the gym
It’s free to walk or run in a park, by the ocean, around your block or go trail running in local woods. If you have a bike you could start to spend more time riding to work, doing some errands or just going for a random ride in your neighbourhood. You can always make it a destination ride, taking in some quieter areas away from traffic with a well-deserved coffee as an endpoint. Looking at the bigger picture, the long-term benefits of green exercise can help mitigate not only personal costs but medical costs as a community. The attraction of exercising outside can be addictive, contributing to better overall health and less time spent in the doctor’s office.
3) It changes our view of nature
Reconnecting with nature enhances our perception and behaviours towards our environment, what researchers at the University of Essex in the UK call ‘green education’ or ‘ecological literacy’. It increases our appreciation of the natural world and our desire to protect habitats threatened by pollution or construction. If you love a particular walk in the woods, spending time by the ocean, or walking in your local neighbourhood you’re quite likely to develop an attachment for the trees you see, the clarity of the water you notice, the birdsong you hear. And be less willing to see those environments degraded.
4) It’s good for you
We all know working out is good for our bodies and green exercise further enhances the positive effects. It lowers our blood pressure and reduces stress – just looking at green, growing things can decrease the stress hormone cortisol. Combining activities such as walking or cycling with nature can boost well-being. In Japan there has been positive feedback from ‘forest bathing’ (Shinrin-yoku). As such there is the potential to use exercising in nature to combat depression and anxiety. Not only can green exercise increase our sense of peace but the vitamin D we absorb when the sun is out leads to better health, increasing bone density and boosting the immune system.
5) It’s a way to reconnect with ourselves and others
Green exercise provides much needed time alone or positive time spent with friends and family. When overwhelmed by routine, errands and obligations a walk in the woods can provide a much needed break. Exercising outdoors with others is a way to connect in a positive way, a shared experience in a stress-free environment, and can make us more caring. When in nature we seem to relax into ourselves more; in essence we’ve provided an enriched environment for our minds and bodies to thrive in. Combine that with the benefits of exercise and it’s hard to think of a reason not to bypass the gym and head to the great outdoors.