Connect With Nature

Christine Woods, MSEd
Photo by Michael Mullen

Exercise outside for overall well-being.

How many times have you gone to the gym and just wanted to get a good cardio workout? Often when we exercise, we’re thinking solely about improving our body’s fitness or function. We may not be thinking about how it can improve our mental and emotional well-being.

True health is about more than just physical fitness. Yes, one of the best things you can do to maintain a healthy body is to exercise. It enhances heart health, increases insulin sensitivity, builds and maintains the musculoskeletal system and benefits the immune system. It can even reduce some forms of cancer risk…and the list goes on.

Exercise is also well known to offer mental and emotional benefits. But do you know what else does? Connecting with nature. Taking your exercise outside is a ticket to physical, mental and emotional well-being.

4 Benefits to Exercising Outdoors

1. Reduce Stress & Find Peace.

The mental and emotional benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces the body’s production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates production of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and mood boosters. It’s these endorphins that are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many high-intensity aerobic workouts.

But movement doesn’t have to be intense for it to have mental and emotional benefits. Any kind of physical activity that you enjoy has benefits. A hike or even a short stroll outside can clear the mind and reduce stress.

Christine Woods, MSEd
Photo by Michael Mullen

Just being in nature has a calming effect. It quiets the overactive sympathetic nervous system (our fight-or-flight response, otherwise known as the “stress response”). When you pay attention to nature and all its beauty, you become grounded in the present, creating a calm space to see a different perspective.

There’s no right or wrong way to connect with nature, just your personal preference. Try a quiet walk, paying close attention to the movement of your body and your breath. Listen to the wind in the trees, the song of the birds, the crunch of your shoes on the path. Notice the sun on the leaves, the breeze on your skin, the smell of the forest.

2. Restore Attention & Creativity.

Mental and emotional fatigue —feeling overwhelmed and burned out—has become all too common. Being in nature can help restore depleted attention reserves.

Have you ever taken a mid-day walk, without your phone, and returned feeling a burst of creativity and optimism? Getting outside is a natural reset. It allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to take a break and recover, just like an overused muscle. Nature captures our attention and takes us away, like a relaxing vacation, helping us concentrate better and think more creatively upon our return.

3. Produce Positive Emotions & Greater Happiness.

Less stress and less fatigue certainly bring about more positive feelings, but don’t overlook the positive feelings associated with simply gazing at nature’s beauty and soaking in its quiet. By inspiring awe, nature helps us step out of ourselves and recognize we are part of something bigger. Looking up at the trees towering above, gazing at an expanse of ocean or watching the unfolding beauty of a sunset… these experiences can shift our perspective. They freshen us and help us reconnect with what’s important. They open us to the possibility of a different way of thinking and responding.

4. Relax & Play.

Maybe getting out in nature and doing what you love will give you permission to play.

Play fills us with joy and happiness. These feelings contribute to an overall sense of meaning and purpose and can help connect us to our authentic selves.

Fitness expert Christine V. Woods, MSEd, ACSM-CCEP, CSCS, is a 25-year industry veteran, serving as clinical exercise physiologist, lifestyle coach, university educator and fitness educator for the Athletic & Fitness Association of America (AFAA).