Green exercise can improve physical and mental health

Exercising outdoors has many benefits for your body and mind.

Michigan State University Extension acknowledges that physical activity can help keep you healthy. Participating in regular physical activity reduces blood pressure, blood sugar levels and helps with maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, interacting with nature on a daily basis has been shown improve mental health by reducing levels of stress, anxiety and even improving symptoms of depression.

Green exercise, which is considered any physical activity that takes place outside, has been shown to improve both physical and mental health. Activities can be intentional such as visiting a neighborhood garden or riding bike, incidental such as interacting with people while walking to the grocery store or walking in the park, as well as indirect like looking at trees through a window or viewing pictures of nature scenes. It includes a variety of activities such as gardening, cycling, walking, horse riding, flying kites, walking the dog or participating in a neighborhood project like planting flowers.

In one study, children experienced outdoor teaching over regular intervals of one school day per week in the forest. Their outdoor-learning program included chances to be physically active during free choice activities and through adult guided planned activities. As compared to children in a regular school setting, “…children in the outdoor classes show higher activity levels than their peers in the school building the intervention group in the outdoors have a statistically significant greater decline of cortisol compared to the control group.” Cortisol is a hormone released in the body in response to stress. It triggers the flight or fight response as part of our human survival mechanism. It is higher in the morning and lowest at night. When cortisol levels are lower, we are calmer.

Another study used an Outdoor Behavioral Health Care approach that combined traditional mental health counseling with wilderness experiences for youth ages 18-23 already diagnosed with mental health issues such as mood disorders, substance abuse and anxiety. Researchers found that participants who completed the program had a reduction in symptoms of distress and interpersonal difficulties and an increased sense of purpose while participating in the intervention. These benefits continued after discharge.

Jo Barton and Jules Pretty conducted a study to see how much green exercise is needed to improve mental health states. They found that the greater the time spent doing green exercise, the greater the improvements in both self-esteem and mood. Those impacts were increased when there was a presence of water. However, they found that even brief times engaging in green exercise showed improvements in mental health.

In conclusion, if you are working on maintaining or improving your health by including physical activity, consider going outside as part of your routine so you can boost both your physical and mental health. 

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