The best way to boost your health beyond exercising regularly is to do it in the great outdoors.
In fact, a new 2016 study of the UK’s first monthlong nature challenge found that after spending time in nature every day for a month, people were 30% more likely to rate their health as “excellent.”
“Researchers are currently proving what clinicians have been observing for years: That spending time communing with nature has tangible health benefits,” explains Manhattan-based therapist Paul Hokemeyer, PhD. He notes that emerging research shows that exposure to nature significantly alters brain chemistry to promote focus, cognition and mental health — as well as improved fitness.
After all, when people exercise outdoors, they actually get more brain and body benefits from their workout of choice, according to a review published in Environmental Science and Technology. In the study, researchers found that when people exercised in nature, their mental health and energy levels were better off than if they had exercised indoors. Even better, when people broke a sweat in the great outdoors, they reported greater exercise enjoyment and were more likely to stick with their workouts.
A comprehensive review published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2014 explained that outdoor environments improve our brain health through what scientists term “soft fascination.” A mental state in which the brain is attentive to the environment but not overwhelmed with the onslaught of stimulation our brains typically endure (Think: beeping phones, honking cars, etc.), soft fascination reduces the demand on the brain’s executive functions, allowing the brain to recuperate, according to researchers
“In nature, visual and auditory input is simplified and organized,” explains evolutionary biologist Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, author of “Blue Mind.” Everything from tree leaves to waves on the ocean take a simple geometrical pattern, and sounds are simple and often, repetitive. “This soft fascination helps you tap into your ‘default mode’ network, which allows us to be more creative, innovative, insightful,” he says.
So powerful is nature’s effect on brain chemistry that rehabilitation programs are beginning to use nature trips to help formerly incarcerated adults ease back into society following release. Nichols also notes that programs designed to assist veterans in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder are increasingly using on-the-water activities like fishing and paddling as an alternative form of therapy. Heroes on the Water, one such program, notes that its veterans report a 56% and 63% reduction in stress levels and avoidance behaviors, respectively.
Unfortunately, research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows that U.S. adults spend roughly 92% of their time indoors.
Ready to cut that number and boost your health? Follow these five simple suggestions to take your workout outdoors:
1. Be an active commuter. Even if that just means getting off of the bus one stop earlier, it will help. In one Preventative Medicine study of 17,985 commuters, those who walked or biked to work reported being happier and 13% less stressed.
2. Take a ski trip. According to research published in Psychological Science, being outside in 25°F weather boosts attention span and memory function just as well as well as being out in 80°F temps.
3. Schedule a walking meeting. When walking, people are 60% more creative than when they are when they’re sitting, per one 2014 Journal of Experimental Psychology study.
4. Grow a fall garden. Research published in the journal HortTechnology shows that weeding alone burns as many calories as does climbing on the elliptical.
5. Adopt a dog. People who own dogs participate in more physical activity (especially walking) compared with those without canines, according to one Journal of Physical Activity & Health review.
Safety first! While exercising outdoors, be sure to follow your state and local guidelines for maintaining social distance and/or wearing masks.