It’s a dark, chilly day and the last thing you want to do is head outside. But something compels you to pull on your cycling kit or hiking boots and head out, even though the sofa is looking mighty appealing. It’s as if your body is storing the memory of how good it made you feel last time.
You’re not imagining it. There’s plenty of science linking exercise, the outdoors and physical wellness. It’s no secret that exercise produces feel-good chemicals, which is why the urge to get out there, even when outside looks uninviting, overrides the desire to mooch on the sofa. You remember how good the last endorphin hit was! The exciting thing that more and more white coats are discovering is that it’s not just exercise, but nature itself, that has health benefits. The scientific links are still a bit hazy so I thought I’d wade in with some thoughts based on theories I’ve heard and my own personal experience.
Healthy body, healthy mind…
Lots of science demonstrates the link between nature, exercise, and physical health. For the most part, when we’re in nature, we tend to be moving – walking, riding a bike, playing bat and ball, even gardening counts. All that movement has well-documented benefits for our heart health, cholesterol levels, and bone density (stronger bones means lower chances of breakages, something we become more susceptible to as we age).
But the benefits of being in nature go beyond a strong heart and bones. Lots of research points to an overall sense of wellbeing in people who spend more time in nature – the elusive sense of contentment that we can access even on a bad day. This is where the science gets hazy. Scientists haven’t nailed down exactly what it is about being in nature that makes us feel better.
Switching off in the great outdoors
The internet and I have a few theories, all mushrooming from the old “mindfulness” chestnut. That is, being fully present in the moment.
When you’re in nature, whether trail running, hiking, cycling or mountain biking, you engage your senses fully: You feel the warm sun on your skin or the chill in your bones; hear the sound of the wind in the trees or the rain lashing on your backpack; smell the water or flowers. These sensations force you into the present. And in doing so, give your prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for problem-solving and multitasking – a break (that bit is science). Instead, you operate on autopilot for a bit, your mind wanders and you start to see things a little differently. Crucially, you start to notice things more too.
Healthy mind, healthy body?
Suddenly you appreciate the light bouncing off a dewey spiderweb, the true majesty of the mountains, or notice how cute the puffed-up pigeons look when it gets cold. These little observations are the things that make us feel connected to the world around us, and indeed help us to connect more easily with the people around us. This counteracts feelings of isolation (herd animals that we are, we don’t like feeling alone), and provide a sense of perspective on our own lives. With a relaxed and happy brain, we find it easier to solve life’s problems and see things from other people’s perspectives. Thus we pave the way for better relationships and a happier, less stressed-out self.
At this point we come full circle as decreased stress is closely linked to physical health, plus there are lots of studies showing the power of the mind to overcome physical ailments. In fact, the very existence of placebos in the pharmaceutical industry suggests that your brain’s belief in healing is a vital yardstick in assessing the effectiveness of a drug – can it beat your brain?
Whichever way you look at, scientifically, spiritually, or both, getting outside is good for you. So here’s to making this year the year of outdoor adventures!
And here’s to planning your next outdoor adventure right now!