How Exercising In Nature Changes Your Brain
Last weekend we had the annual Flex Physio hike at Woolnorth, on the North-West coast of Tasmania. This is our version of a Christmas party and all our current and previous clients are invited to join in the fun. Once upon-a-time we would meet for delicious food and wine (which I still love to do), but I feel a truly memorable event is a day hike somewhere beautiful.
There is also something special about walking together as a group. Not only to be out in nature and explore new locations with like-minded people but also for the benefits of exercising in nature itself. This has been proven to not only help with our physical health but also our brain health exponentially.
A recent review found that compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement. It also leads to decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date - making it a habit we're more likely to stick with.
Most of the worlds population today live in cities and spend less time outside in natural spaces than people did several generations ago. For those of us living in cities, there's a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.
Brooding, which is known as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, where we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. Our thoughts seem to go over and over the same old thoughts and stories.
This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. No matter how much we tell ourselves to relax or to stop worrying, we can't seem to shake certain thoughts. It can leave us feeling fearful, tense and unable to live in the present moment. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers, studies show.
Rumination is strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex. In one study, when participants walked along quiet, tree-lined paths mental health improved. It reduces dwelling on the negative aspects of our lives and blood flow dropped to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of our brain became quieter. As might have been expected, walking along a highway does not soothe the mind: blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and when study participants walked in busy areas and their broodiness scores were unchanged.
Results strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods.
An interesting benefit of getting outside and into nature is that exposure to plants like trees can improve the immune system. Airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from fungus, bacteria and insects (these chemicals are called phytoncides) may also benefit humans. In a study published in 2007, people who took two hour long walks in a forest had a 50-per-cent increase in the levels of their natural killer cells: the cells that circulate through the body and kill bacteria, viruses, fungus and other invaders.
With the ‘great outdoors’ including forests, seaside, countryside, parks, local green areas and even gardens we don't need to travel far to reap the benefits of exercising in nature. Of course the gym and indoor training still has it's place, but incorporating a walk, run, ski, swim or cycle in nature once per week can dramatically revitalise the body and mind, increase energy and improve mental health