Exercise has clear, defined benefits, including preventing disease, boosting mental health and helping you stay independent and strong throughout life. Likewise, spending time in nature has been shown repeatedly to increase happiness, mood and energy levels. Recently, research has uncovered more about the powerful combination of exercise in nature.
Consider taking your physical activity outdoors, especially in natural spaces. You can even reap the benefits from virtual nature experiences such as indoor cycling with nature depicted on a screen. And you don’t have to perform high-intensity or even challenging workouts outdoors; a simple walk can improve your health and wellbeing, according to the research.
Below, discover eight incredible health benefits of exercising in nature.
Benefits of Exercising in Nature
1. Reduces anxiety
Being active helps to relieve symptoms of anxiety, but exercising in nature may have an even more substantial effect. Research published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology shows that even an activity as simple as a quarter-mile stroll at a pace of your choosing has incredible benefits when done in nature. Moving your body in nature can lower stress and anxiety levels and support an overall improved psychological state compared to indoor exercise.
Interestingly, research published in Nature found that these effects can occur even if the “natural” environment is virtual. So, if you don’t have easy access to the great outdoors, you can exercise while looking at natural environments and experience anxiety-relieving benefits from home.
2. Improves self-esteem
While the mood-boosting effects of exercise and being in nature are both well known, it might come as a surprise that exercising in nature can affect how you feel about yourself. Research from the American Chemical Society shows considerable benefits to self-esteem from short stints of green exercise. Even short active trips through a natural area can improve how you feel about yourself.
3. Boosts mood
While relieving stress and increasing self-esteem can positively impact your mood, exercising in nature can go beyond those factors. Research shows that exercising in nature changes how your brain functions, helping you focus on more external aspects of your surroundings instead of the things that may be bothering you and causing a low mood.
What’s more, exercising in real or virtual natural environments can decrease worry and panic, and being active outdoors evokes positive emotions, improves feelings of wellbeing and boosts overall mood.
4. Increases vitamin D
Vitamin D is vital for musculoskeletal health, hormone function and immune and nervous system health. Getting outdoors to be active instead of working out inside provides more opportunity for those with busy workdays to get access to fresh air and the sunlight that helps you produce vitamin D.
What’s more, research points to exercise helping release and increase blood levels of vitamin D, so exercising in nature may have even more impact on your vitamin D levels than previously thought.
5. Relieves stress and tension
Spending time exercising in nature can help relieve feelings of tension and stress. These effects are not just apparent in how you feel but in your actual physiology. Research shows that being active in nature can switch your nervous system from being in a “fight or flight” (sympathetic) mode to being in a “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) mode.
This is crucial for managing stress levels since the sympathetic mode can increase stress hormones like cortisol to chronic levels, leading to all sorts of undesirable health conditions, like high blood pressure, obesity and all-cause mortality. The research shows that being in nature can lower levels of cortisol, which is also true for exercise, especially those that are easily performed in nature, such as walking, yoga and hiking.
6. Combats boredom and improves focus
Getting outdoors and exercising in nature can break up monotonous days spent indoors, including exercising in a gym or on a treadmill. Research shows that being active outside can improve attention. One caveat—the most significant benefits are seen when you exercise in nature rather than in built-up areas like cities. Walking outdoors can reduce feelings of tiredness and mental fatigue, so taking a break from work to get some fresh air and sunlight while upping your step count could help you tackle the rest of your day with a fresh and energized mind and body.
7. Provides more challenge
If you are a cyclist, runner or walker, outdoor terrain can provide more of a natural challenge to your training sessions than an indoor one can. The natural inclines and declines, roughness, twists, and turns of an outdoor surface can increase the challenge of your workouts, help build muscle, and increase your heart rate, improving cardiovascular fitness.
8. Boosts motivation and consistency
While some people have no problem sticking to an exercise routine for years, many struggle with motivation and consistency. Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that people who exercise in green spaces have intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is the kind that comes from a deep inner desire to keep doing the task. In this case, people who are active outdoors do it because they genuinely enjoy it for its benefits instead of doing it out of an external obligation, such as for weight loss or because their doctor told them to.
Take your workouts outdoors
More and more benefits of being outdoors in nature and exercise continue to pour in from scientific research. Combining these two powerful strategies by exercising outdoors has also proven incredibly beneficial.
You don’t have to drop all your indoor training or start high-impact or intense outdoor training. Science shows that all you need is a pair of good walking shoes and a place to stroll in nature. Even a natural virtual environment might help if you can’t get outside. Happy trails!