31.1% of adults worldwide are physically inactive. The decline in outdoor activities is attributed to urbanisation, technological advances through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and more recently, the digital revolution.
The focus of much structured physical activity nowadays has also shifted to gymnasiums, sports halls and homes rather than the outdoors.
However, what we often overlook is that natural environments offer many benefits for well-being and recovery from stress. Spending leisure time in a green environment has positive effects on perceived mental and general health.
Furthermore, nature and green spaces offer an inexpensive resource for enhancing physical activity and thus reducing stress-associated and lifestyle-related disorders such as burnout syndrome, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases.
How nature promotes health
Nature provides an environmental setting for activity/exercise, which promotes increased physical activity. This leads to improved physical fitness and health.
The evidence that exercise and physical activity have positive impacts on health is well established. There is also some evidence that physical activity can benefit mental health as it lessens feelings of depression.
Nature provides a particular environmental stimuli that allows the restoration from attention fatigue, which occurs during the performance of cognitive tasks that require prolonged maintenance of directed attention.
This includes everyday tasks like driving, office work, reading and such.
Nature has restorative qualities that promote feelings of “being away” from routine activities, and attracts our attention without the need for us to put in any effort.
Nature allows stress recovery through our natural responses to the characteristics of natural environments – spatial openness, the presence of pattern or structure, and water features.
The perception of these characteristics is believed to trigger positive emotional reactions related to safety and survival.
What benefit does nature provide
Over the years, scientists have shown that nature can provide stress relief, increase social interaction, encourage physical exercise and even help soothe mental illness.
Exercising outdoors is more beneficial to mental health compared to indoor activities. The benefits of green exercises are undoubtedly many, and include the following:
Improve motivation to exercise
It is an effective method in promoting lifestyle changes by improving adherence rates to exercise programmes.
Exercising outdoors may help motivate physical activity by increasing enjoyment and escapism from everyday life, and has a social and entertainment value.
There is even some evidence to suggest that exercise may feel easier when performed in a natural environment. When allowed to self-select walking speed, participants tend to walk faster outdoors, compared to indoors. Paradoxically, they report a lower rate of perceived exertion, suggesting they perceive exercise to be less demanding when performed in a natural environment.
Enhance mental health
Further evidence shows that exercising outdoors can improve moods, and perception of effort appears to be reduced.
All types of outdoor exercises also improve self-esteem and reduce negative moods such as tension, anger and depression.
Interestingly, the first five minutes of any outdoor exercise appears to have the biggest impact on mood and self-esteem, suggesting an immediate psychological health benefit.
Improve physiological outcomes
Physiological outcomes include an improved heart rate, blood pressure and autonomic control (using heart rate variability) and endocrine markers including noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol (an objective measure of stress).
Exposure to nature also increases arousal and attention capacity with observed increases in heart rate.
The increase of heart rate variability also indicates the adaptability of the nervous system to respond to challenges experienced by an individual such as stress and exercise.
Boost immunity system
Natural killer cell activity increases for up to 30 days after a three-day trip to a forest for males and a seven-day trip for females.
This suggests that the interaction with nature does not have to be very long to gain wide-ranging physiological health benefits.
We have to work hard to preserve nature and ensure our earth stays a safe and healthy place for us to live in.
But consider the saying by Jim Rohn: “Take care of your body, it’s the only place you have to live”.
Engaging in physical activity outdoors provides health benefits that are not available indoors.
Alongside the social aspect which some individuals crave, it may also increase enjoyment and adherence to bring about positive behaviour changes in a large proportion of the population.
Thus, exercising in green spaces may be a useful natural remedy to address our various health challenges. The great outdoors, therefore, should not be just considered a playground for those who seek the thrills of extreme sports, but a space for all.
This article was written in collaboration with Naluri and appeared in hellodoktor.com. It was reviewed by Dr Duyen Le. The Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.