For a city girl, I have a surprisingly strong connection to nature. As a native New Yorker who has lived in Manhattan all her life, I find being in natural settings restorative. New York’s urban nature is plentiful, and exercising in nature helps me:
- fight off stress,
- carve out time and space to think and solve problems, and
- cultivate gratitude while experiencing natural beauty.
Neighborhood parks, apartment balconies with a view, local beaches, community gardens, and open spaces allow city slickers like me the opportunity to be “one with nature.” I walk daily through the urban landscape, finding natural beauty with almost every step. It turns out that green exercise (exercising in nature) has amazing fitness and mood-boosting benefits. Find out how to lower stress and improve your thinking while getting leaner and fitter.
The Restorative Powers of Nature
A recent article by the American Psychological Association outlined the many benefits of spending time in nature, including:
- improved attention, memory and cognitive flexibility (we all need that these days)
- lower stress,
- improved mood,
- positive social interactions, and
- increased empathy and cooperation.
Turns out, spending time in urban nature settings, like parks, offers these benefits too. According to researcher Lisa Nisbet, “You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And the sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature.”
Green Exercise: My Daily Mindset Booster
That means my daily commute to work— that winds through a beautiful part of New York’s Central Park—may be making me happier. It’s not hard to believe I’m happier than I would be if I were taking other types of transportation (a crowded subway or city bus). I’m lucky to feel connected and immersed in nature two times each day as I walk to and from work. Those daily walks support my positive mental outlook.
Each day, I feel a wave of contentment roll over my mind and body as I approach the edge of the park and begin to walk across it. My senses wake up, and I see and smell intriguing natural finds. Sometimes it’s a fall leaf that’s bigger than my hand and a uniquely rich auburn color. Or it could be a strange and funky tree fungus that grabs my attention as I happen to glance at an old tree trunk. This time of year, it could be holiday tree lights that brighten my path on a cold walk home at dusk.
I walk daily, so nature walks while on vacation are another favorite of mine. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy beach walks, bird sanctuary walks and forest walks in places as near as Long Island and as far as Hawaii.
The Nature Prescription: Two Hours Per Week
How much time do you need to spend in nature to get these amazing benefits, and what role does exercising in nature play? Researchers are examining the relationship between nature’s benefits alone, as well as the combined benefits of exercising in natural settings. Green exercise, exercising in nature, is being praised for its ability to help with multiple health issues, including immune function, blood pressure, and sleep. Activities like walking in parks or forests, trail biking and running, rock climbing, outdoor yoga, swimming, paddle boarding, surfing, and skiing are examples. The list goes on.
I’m lucky to be able to spend one hour per day in nature, but research shows that people who spend at least two hours in natural environments for recreation per week report greater health and well-being. It’s hard to separate the positive effects of physical exercise done in nature (like walking) from the direct benefits simply from being in nature. However, research suggests that the benefits of nature aren’t all from physical activity.
Green Exercise: Fitness + Mood Booster
Exercising in nature is a powerful one-two punch to any wellness routine because when you exercise in natural settings, you get fitter physically while gaining mental health benefits. Over decades of trying to lose weight (since childhood), I’ve learned that I use food to cope with unpleasant emotional states (or numb myself when I don’t want to feel anything).
Since childhood, this emotional eating has been a powerful driver of my weight gain. As a child, I unconsciously ate to regulate negative emotional states. Those patterns are extremely difficult to change. Managing unpleasant states of mind (stress, anger, loneliness, sadness, frustration and fear) with food was my coping mechanism for a very long time. I didn’t lose weight (and keep it off) until my 50s.
I’ve written about what replaces compulsive overeating, but one of the most beneficial health habits I engage in since losing weight is exercising in nature, specifically walking. I get one hour of heart-healthy cardio five days per week while enjoying natural wonders that surprise and amaze me every day. But what’s even more valuable is the way walking in nature regulates my mood. It’s like having two therapy sessions per day. My morning commute wakes me up and sets a positive outlook and mindset for the day, while my evening commute helps me process work stress and transition to home life.
Green Exercise: 20 Fitness & Mood-Boosting Benefits of Exercising in Nature
Need more of an incentive to start working out in nature? Check out these 20 fitness and mood-boosting benefits of exercising in nature. Many of these benefits—everything from handling mental tasks better to finding happiness in small, beautiful moments—are taken from my daily walks in nature.
- Get fitter: improve heart health, strength, flexibility, and balance
- Work out problems/consider solutions
- Improve self-esteem
- Take deep, cleansing breaths
- Immerse your senses: color, smell, sound
- Release feel-good endorphins
- Connect with neighbors and community
- Maintain mobility/functional movement
- Quiet the mind/enjoy stillness
- Chance encounters with art & natural beauty
- Reduce isolation and feel connected
- Improve your immune function
- Enjoy new music playlists
- Save money (transportation/gym costs)
- Reduce your carbon footprint
- Release anger and frustration
- See the world from a new perspective
- People watch
- Master new hobbies
- Cultivate gratitude & count blessings
Whether you exercise in a park, forest, on a beach, in the ocean or on a mountain trail, green exercise is a powerful health booster that’s relatively easy to start. Green exercise can be an efficient, smart way to maintain overall wellness and positivity.
For all these reasons, I hope you get green exercise on repeat!
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