The benefits of exercising outdoors

My last blog item concluded that it didn’t really matter where you walked, just that you walked – that it was the movement in itself that makes a difference to mood.

However, another All in the Mind episode has explored in more detail the link between exercise taken outside (“green exercise”) and the impact on well-being. This time, instead of people sitting and standing on treadmills we had to imagine the scene of a pair of exercise bikes in the great outdoors.

Claudia Hammond and Dr Mike Rogerson were exploring evidence from the University of Essex’ Green Exercise team about the impact of exercising outdoors. Their research has shown a link between where the exercise takes place, people’s enjoyment of that exercise and a change in their intention to exercise more.Three circles: exercise, green spaces and emotions

Mike quoted research from Scotland where people exercised moving between a built-up environment and an urban park and back again, with brain activity being monitored

“As someone moved into a greener environment their brain showed traces which are more akin to meditation and lower state of arousal and therefore being stressed. When they moved back into an urban environment it flipped.”

There are plenty of researchers exploring why this happens, and there’s a great summary by Miles Richardson from Derby University in his Finding Nature blog. I particularly like the three circles they use to explore the links between our emotions and the physiology that underpins them.

  1. Drive – positive feelings needed to seek out resources
  2. Contentment – Safety, soothing, affection
  3. Anxiety – feelings and alerts generated by the threat and self-protection system.

It is the balance of these three things that determines whether our experience of our environment is a positive or negative one.

Obviously people differ, and some people feel more comfortable in built up environments than parks, or even the countryside. Not everyone feels at home in nature, particularly if it evokes fears or anxiety. This highlights the importance of well maintained and well visited urban parks, as reported in a recent Public Health England blog. It also shows how vital improvement projects by organisations such as Groundwork, Wildlife Trusts and The Woodland Trust are in urban areas.

We can help people to make use of their local urban parks and it can be easier for people to walk or exercise together – to gain confidence from being in a group. This is something that Living Streets found in Leicester, where an older people’s group were keen to visit an outdoor gym together. They had never been before, and were only confident to use it within the safety and encouragement of a group.

Group taking part on an outdoor gym in a guided walk lead by Living Streets
Guided walk led by Living Streets in Leicester

Which brings us back to Mike Rogerson:

“We found … that people tend to report enjoying their exercise more when it was outdoors in this environment compared to indoors in a lab. We also found that … people tended to talk more outdoors, compared to indoors, to a really significant extent.”

So, being outdoors gives us a different opportunity to be with people, which is one factor that has a definite improvement on our emotions. Those of us who love the outdoors, and who feel comfortable and safe there can plan an important role in helping others to have a similar experience – and it may have a huge impact both on how they feel and on what future actions they will take.

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