Thursday, May 23, 2024

Green Exercise Elevates Your Workout, Researchers Find

Christine Andersson calls it her Isaac Newton moment – you know, the guy who allegedly discovered the law of gravity while sitting under a tree. “Except in my case, it was more of a self-discovery, but I really was sitting under a tree.”

Upon taking early retirement, the 55-year-old lost one of the best perks of her former job as a human resources executive – a fully paid membership at an upscale fitness club. It prompted her to explore other more budget-friendly exercise options. A neighbour suggested she join the local branch of the Bruce Trail Hiking Club, a network of 800 kms of trails in south-central Ontario. Andersson took that advice, and she also signed up with a volunteer-run, beginner-level cycling group.

Studies show that those who exercised outdoors benefitted from lower stress levels. Photo: Flickr/CreativeCommons, dirtygirlXy.

“I was three months into my new lifestyle when I had my epiphany under a maple tree while hiking on the Bruce Trail. I was reflecting on how great I was feeling – physically and emotionally,” Andersson recalls. “And I knew it wasn’t just the afterglow of breaking free of work. I used to hit the treadmill and lift weights at my indoor gym three times every week, and squeeze in a group aerobic or spin class on top of that. Then I realized in the first 10 weeks of my retirement I had spent at least three days each week outdoors, mostly in forests and countryside meadows. It hit me. Exercising outdoors was benefitting me in ways my indoor workouts never did.”

“Green exercise” unleashes a slew of wellness benefits

Andersson was reaping the benefits of “green exercise,” a term used by Dr. Alan Logan, a Toronto-trained naturopath who, along with Harvard physician Dr. Eva Selhub, co-authored Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Health, Happiness and Vitality. Logan, who is now based in the US, says: “Spending time in natural surroundings, such as a forest, influences a wide range of stress markers and physiology. Stress hormones and heart rate go down, immune systems and mood improve.”

Logan and Selhub maintain that exercising outdoors can also help prevent depression, diabetes, and slow the cognitive decline of older adulthood.

Green exercise is a trend that is catching on among those looking for more from their workouts. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Sebastian Dooris.

Logan cites a study at Carlton University in Ottawa in which one group of participants walked outdoors through green spaces and the other group walked through underground tunnels. The results? Those who walked outside felt and performed better – with respect to their their mood and thoughts – than those who walked indoors.

Walking in crowded city streets surrounded by traffic, throngs of people and a multitude of other distractions means the brain is often still working on overdrive – sometimes attempting to block out such disturbances. “Time spent in nature allows a break from inhibition,” says Logan. “The very act of being in nature, in green space, is cognitively restorative, simply because you aren’t applying the brakes any more.”

Let nature chase away that stress

Logan and Selhub cite a study conducted with older adults in a residential care centre in Texas. It showed individuals who participated in nature-based activities produced significantly lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

“The very act of being in nature, in green space, is cognitively restorative, simply because you aren’t applying the brakes any more.”

Some researchers maintain that adults can even reap the curative benefits of time spent in nature without a lot of physical exertion. Health practitioners are paying increasing attention to shinrin-yoku, Japanese forest bathing, gentle, mindful walks in the woods. According to Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, “A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you.”

These boots are made for walking!

Hiking and just old-fashioned walking are ideal ways to amp up the cardio quotient of your outdoor adventures. It offers a multitude of muscular and cardiovascular health benefits, according to the Hearth & Stroke Foundation of Canada:

•   Improves mood and emotional well-being
•   Boosts energy and stamina
•   Maintains blood-sugar levels
•   Improves circulation, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of developing heart disease
•   Lowers the risk of developing various cancers
•   Protects the brain from the effects of aging and helps guard against dementia, strengthens leg muscles, which in turn, helps protect knee and hip joints.

Hiking is also a reliable calorie-burner. Experts estimate that a 160-lb person burns between 430 and 440 calories per hour of hiking. (Andersson can testify to that: “I lost eight pounds over my first two months of hiking. My knee joints thank me!”)

Logan cites a Harvard study of the impact of walking on 18,000 older adult women. The outcome? Walking was associated with significantly better cognitive function and the prevention of cognitive decline.

There’s a growing appreciation for hiking amongst healthcare practitioners. Last year, the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario partnered with Hike Ontario and Conservation Ontario to launch Mood Walks, a province-wide initiative that “promotes physical activity in nature as a way to improve both physical and mental health.”

Andersson is grateful to her friend for encouraging her to get out into nature. “Hiking in the woods has become my biggest passion,” she says. “I come home from every outdoor adventure feeling pumped and positive. Not a bad way to kick start the next stage of my life.”

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Doug O'Neill
Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”