Let’s be real: Our modern lifestyle is far removed from what was normal even just a century ago. It’s infinitely easier to justify living an indoor life. Many of us work from home, travel in our cars, work out in gyms, run errands in malls and grocery stores—constantly moving between confined spaces. It’s important to remember that humans are programmed both to seek shelter and to exist within the natural world. Our bodies are designed to adjust to the weather, eat seasonal foods, and breathe fresh air.
At Tracy Anderson Method, we are all about creating a balanced lifestyle, and getting back to nature is one of the pillars of this holistic approach to wellness. We deep dived into “green exercise”, a term that refers to physical activity in nature. There’s a whole field of study dedicated to the many benefits of green exercise, and the diverse ways in which our bodies are affected by our natural environments. We’ve compiled 5 main reasons green exercise will elevate your movement practice, and reinvigorate your wellness journey.
1. Mental Health
The feeling of fresh air is not just pleasant—being outdoors has been scientifically proven to affect our neurochemistry, and impact our long-term mental health. Studies show that, comparatively, exercising outdoors has more mental health benefits than indoor physical activity. Not only that, but researchers have found that exercise heightens the mental health benefits of being outside, indicating that the relationship between movement and nature is more intertwined than one would assume at first glance.
Studies in completely disparate parts of the world—Japan, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands—have shown that access to green space is linked to decreased risk of mental illness. As access to nature is socially linked to quality of life, there is a direct correlation when it comes to long-term psychological well-being.
Other research has found that outdoor activity in nature induces greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement. Green exercise—across all different kinds of activity—improves self-esteem and curbs negative mood subscales, including tension, anger, and depression. What’s fascinating is that the very first five minutes of green exercise seem to have the most significant impact on mood and self-esteem, indicating that nature has immediate positive effects on mental health. This means that getting outside—even for a 15-Minute Body Boost—could change your mood instantly.
2. Physical and Cognitive Performance
Did you know that being in nature impacts both your physical and cognitive performance? The science is in: Nature has proven to provide restorative properties to the mind and body, allowing for better recovery from mental fatigue and heightened attention. Other studies have found that exercise actually feels easier when you move in a natural environment, suggesting that green exercise reduces perceived effort and allows individuals to work at higher rates. If you’re looking to increase the amount of physical activity you can take on, or need more motivation to push through, nature’s bounty is your best bet. There’s also the enjoyment aspect: Evidence attests that green exercise makes movement more enjoyable, and usually leads to increased frequency of physical activity.
Other experiments have found that being in natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control, as direct contrast to urban environments (linked to attention deficits). Cynthia Frantz, PhD, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio stated that “spending time in nature has cognitive benefits, but it also has emotional and existential benefits that go beyond just being able to solve arithmetic problems more quickly.” Green exercise might just be the secret to creating harmony across the mind, body, and soul.
3. Stress Reduction
We’ve all experienced that familiar feeling when you step outside, and immediately feel more at peace. A study from 2013 found that green exercise reduces stress and anxiety. The effects of stress on the body are manifold and life-endangering, so incorporating green exercise into your movement practice can make a colossal difference in your total-body health. It’s all too easy to ignore the fact that cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” causes extreme damage to the mind and body. The adrenaline of modern life exacerbates this phenomenon, making stress lethal in our society. If both exercise and nature have stress-reducing benefits, together they are exponentially more advantageous to your health.
4. Disease Prevention
It’s surprising how interlinked green exercise is with disease prevention: Multiple studies found that green exercise has a potentially critical role in primary and secondary prevention of disease.
There are other studies conducted in Japan that monitored the physiological effect of walking in forest environments, and they reported similar findings. They noticed significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in the forest environment when compared to the identical physical activity performed in an urban environment that lacked vegetation. This means that green exercise has the potential to significantly increase your longevity.
5. Honoring the Primal Self
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—being in nature allows us to return to our most basic human instincts. At TA, we’re constantly encouraging the people who move with us to put their primal selves in the driver’s seat. Our minds and bodies are hijacked by the stressors of the modern world. You’re probably reading this article on a device that contributes to that. But there’s still hope—making the active choice to return to nature by incorporating green exercise into your routine can make all the difference.
One theory suggests that we are all born with an innate emotional affiliation for nature, indicating that our genetic makeup predisposes us to natural environments.
Alison Pritchard, PhD, ABPP, at the University of Derby in England found that people who feel more connected to nature have greater “eudaimonic well-being”—a type of happiness that goes beyond just feeling good, and actually involves the sensation of having meaningful purpose in life. All in all, green exercise may be the best tool to reinvent your life, from the inside out.