Many of us will, perhaps until recently, have been frequent gym goers and pool users and have used these sessions to help with our training, especially through the long and cold winter nights. We all know that just getting exercise is good for us so what makes the difference between getting our exercise inside or outside? Surely it can’t just be about the effect on our muscles as I’m pretty sure we can gain as much gain from a gym session when simply wanting to tone up and at the end of the day we are using the same muscles when exercising inside or outside.
Thinking about it this way tends to make you think that perhaps the benefits are simply all about our mental health. If being in nature potentially boosts our mental health, then I can understand why that would make us feel good. But I keep wondering if there is also any physical impact as well as mental benefits of getting active outside.
Since many of us, including myself, have experienced more stress and anxiety than normal over the past few months, anything that can help can only be a good thing. There are different types of anxiety including social anxiety, health anxiety and general anxiety all of which result in the body mounting a stress response getting us ready for the ‘fight and flight’ action needed to ward off an attacking tiger.
The stress response is useful in certain situations where you are in danger or in a sporting scenario such as racing when we need that surge of adrenalin. The trouble these days is many of us are stuck in a viscous cycle of stress and anxiety that we find hard to control. Perhaps nature alongside getting active can be the best of both worlds, running off that cortisol and adrenalin and kicking in the calming hormones instead?
So I got thinking about what potential benefits there might be of getting active outside and when I listed them out the top three seemed to me to be natural light, the power of plants and the design of nature.
With natural light, I have heard about blue light being problematic for health so perhaps natural light is be better for you?
Second the power of plants, can they somehow interact with us to calm us down?
Lastly the design of nature, outside is very soft, no sharp edges and very different to our straight, sharp sided designs that tend to be all around us from roads, houses to tables, books, and computers, could this be the answer?
And can any of these three things have any impact on our physical health? The question of whether the combination of exercise and nature is synergistic or more powerful than when we do both independently certainly seems still seemed like a possibility to me. So I did a bit of research on these ideas and found a lot of interesting information that I want to share with you.
Here are my three possible reasons why exercising in nature might boost your physical and mental health.
1. Natural Light
I discovered that sunlight could provide you with a feeling of well-being equivalent to the runners high and it works by increasing your body’s excretion of an opioid called beta-endorphin. Of course we also need sunlight to make vitamin D which is synthesised when our skin has direct contact with sunlight. This only happens in the UK during the months of April to September when the sun is high enough in the sky of it to be effective.
What is interesting is that our blood pressure has been found to be lower during the summer months and this is thought to be due to the effect of UV radiation on skin increasing the production of nitric oxide as well as increased levels of vitamin D.
As many of you will know, nitric oxide can help increase blood flow by dilating our blood vessels and is why beetroot juice is used by athletes as it high in nitrates. My last discovery about light is that our levels of serotonin, known as our happy hormone, are directly related to the amount of sunlight we are exposed to.
Not only that, but scientists have discovered that our skin may be able to produce serotonin so exposing more of your skin to sunlight could be helpful. Of course exercise also increases serotonin so that leads me to the conclusion that exercise plus natural light can only be a good thing.
2. The Power of Plants
You might think that the benefits from being outside with nature come from our interaction with the natural environment and particularly the plants that surround us whether it be in a forest or garden, alpine meadows or along the coast. We can probably easily visualise how our senses of sound, smell, taste, touch could all play a part in this.
If you can conjure up an image of a beach with a back drop of dunes and beyond that a beautiful meadow of grass and spring flowers, hearing the waves lapping onto the sand, going barefoot and feeling your toes sinking in and smelling, perhaps even tasing the sea, then you know exactly what I mean. Even thinking about it can send me into a state of relaxation! But fascinatingly scientists have discovered that it is not just about our five main senses there are another three that might be contributing to our experience of nature.
These new senses include our ingestion or inhalation of phytoncides, which are active compounds that plants make to protect themselves, negative air ions which are electrically charged molecules and atoms in our atmosphere and the microbes in our environment.
Even looking at nature through a window has proven to be beneficial although scientists do not yet know exactly why that is. Theories include that nature has more green and blue colours that are more relaxing to us visually, as well as a lack of straight lines and a huge variety in shapes, density, and hues of colour. Natural sounds including bird song and waves are used to reduce stress and restore calmness whereas urban noises are associated with negative health outcomes.
Smells have a profound effect on our mood and behaviour although not all natural smells are pleasant and beneficial. Smells associated with cut grass, flowers and herbs evoke feeling of pleasure and happiness. Taste can also be linked to our emotions with natural and organic foods perceived as tasting better and making us feel good. While there is plenty of research supporting the benefits of touch with animals there isn’t really much out there to suggest how feeling tree bark or wet grass under your feet can be beneficial although I’m sure there are plenty of us who think it is.
So onto those other three elusive senses. What about phytoncides? There are antimicrobial compounds emitted by plants for defence against decay or attack by browsing animals. Phytoncides are all around us in the air in nature and are ingested by us without us realising it. They are not smelled or tasted as such, but simply taken in when we inhale. They have been found to help our immune system, decrease our stress, and increase relaxation as well as helping with sleep and anxiety. Air ions are positively or negatively charged air particles that form in the natural environment due to radiation, cosmic rays, electromagnetic solar waves, waterfalls, thunder, radiant energy, and UV light.
They are particularly abundant in natural places, such as forests and waterfalls, and are thought to be one reason why we feel good in natural places. Microbes exist all around us and inside us and although some are bad for us, many of them are good for us and have been found to alter mood and reduce anxiety. It is surprising to think that that some of the benefits of being in nature could be due to the micro-organisms we encounter in the air, soil, and water all around us.
3. The Design of Nature
Well I have already mentioned this briefly when talking about the visual benefits that plants provide, but it turns out that the science around this is quite fascinating and revolves around fractals. Fractals are defined by simple mathematic rules applied to things that look visually complex or chaotic, they are repeating patterns that are identical, or similar. Examples in nature are leaves, snowflakes, flowers, and ocean waves. I learned that people are hard wired to respond to certain forms of fractals in nature and experiments have shown that exposure to fractal patterns in nature reduces levels of stress by up to 60%. It seems that they have a deep and powerful effect on our body and knowing this might make you look at nature in a whole new way.
In addition to these individual fascinating aspects of nature during my research I found that evidence that specifically linking the powerful effects of combining exercise and nature, known as the ‘green effect’. Exercising outside has benefits on our social interaction, attention span, mood, and self-esteem. Not only that, but amazingly exercising outside has additional benefits to exercising inside including with our heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability as well as our stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.