Her face glowed with the blush of exertion, heart beating fast and strong, her huge smile making her seem younger than her years.
That may sound like an excerpt from one of those naughtier romance novels, but it was actually just an observation of a friend while we were bare-foot running through the woods one afternoon.
Funny that I don’t remember ever seeing that look on the faces of anyone at the gym. Indoor treadmill workouts just don’t seem able to inspire such innocent, childlike glee the way having fun outdoors in a beautiful natural setting can. Certainly, the creative and unscripted quality of a less structured workout can provide a greater sense of fun than one that is rigid and predictable. But what of the influence of nature itself?
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were immersed in an outdoor natural environment. Even as recently as 100 years ago, we spent a much more significant amount of time working and living out of doors, and many suggest that this innate desire to be in nature remains within even the most urbanized of us modern-day humans. The recent surge in interest in the Paleo or Primal lifestyle may have had a hand in making less structured outdoor exercise more popular, but nature as therapy has been gaining a foothold in our vocabulary for a while now.
Many studies have demonstrated a strong positive relationship between our exposure to nature, and our levels of relaxation and overall well-being. Japanese studies into ‘forest therapy’ show higher depression levels in those who report going out into nature less frequently, and conversely an increase in brain function and attention span in those who spend even a few minutes in a natural outdoor environment. Children in particular seem to respond dramatically to nature or forest therapy, to the extent that even having access to a natural view (i.e. a tree in the park, some green space; see study) can have a positive influence on hyperactivity disorders and attention span.
But how exactly does nature produce these positive effects on our brains and bodies? For one, exposure to natural settings and views seems to reduce activity in the Default Mode Network (DMT) in our brains. The DMT is associated with stress and anxiety, and it becomes active when we worry and ruminate on issues. Time spent in natural surroundings, including the sights, sounds and smells of nature, seem to deactivate the DMT, giving us a break from our monkey minds.
Another key aspect of exercising in a natural environment is that such a setting does not require our direct and focused attention in the way that urban settings do (think media, traffic, crowds, noice pollution). Instead, we can let our attention wander and drift, which encourages recovery from mental fatigue.
Combining the powerfully positive effects of nature with the now widely accepted and equally profound health benefits of physical exercise is a synergistic match made in heaven.
So next time you groan at the thought of hitting the gym, why not try taking your workout outside instead? It’s a natural fit!