With the festive season nearly over and Blue Monday fast approaching, University of the Highlands and Islands PhD student Matthew Fraser provides insights into the physical and mental benefits of green exercise.
At this time of year it’s easy to slip into bad habits. From a dietary perspective, a lot of us over the festive period find ourselves eating things we normally wouldn’t consume. Combine this with the dropping temperatures, inclement weather and gyms closing for holidays and many of us will find ourselves conducting less physical activity and adopting poor lifestyle habits.
As a direct result of this, many us of set a New Year’s resolution designed to physically and mentally motivate us to take up positive habits. Despite this, statistics show that 80% will have quit this resolution by February. We fail to maintain our resolutions for many reasons, but typically creating unrealistic resolutions is the largest contributor to failure.
However, a new emerging form of physical activity is at the centre of exercise research and has been shown to not only increase motivation, but to offer supplementary mental and physical health benefits.
So what is this new form of exercise I hear you say? Well it’s not new. In fact it’s the oldest known form of exercise to man. It’s called outdoor exercise, newly termed ‘green exercise’. Areas to conduct green exercise are not exclusive to outdoor areas which are green. The research notes that local parks, mountains, hill trails, woodlands, beaches and public greenspaces are areas where benefits occur.
How can green exercise benefit us?
My current PhD research centres around green exercise. Being from a sporting background, I was surprised to discover the sheer amount of benefits that we unconsciously receive from conducting exercise in the presence of nature. I’m sure many of us by now have heard the exercise guidelines that recommend exercise for 150 minutes per week at a moderate to vigorous intensity.
While we all should aim to meet these targets, many of us find it challenging to begin conducting exercise. However, an interesting finding from the green exercise research found that, when walking at a self-selected intensity outdoors, participants actually exercise at a greater intensity whilst paradoxically perceiving the exercise as easier, compared to exercising indoors.
Most of the research into green exercise has tended to focus on mental health benefits. Mental health has become an increasingly large issue in modern society. Take ‘Blue Monday’. Blue Monday is the third Monday of January and is said to be the most depressing day of the year. So how can green exercise help improve our mental health? The figure below demonstrates just some of the mental health benefits of exercising in nature.
In terms of winter exercise, it has been shown that a 50 minute walk can improve focus and memory by 20%. This finding might be important for those of us who work or study in jobs where we are required to problem solve and concentrate for long periods of time. Whilst 50 minutes may seem like a long time to exercise, other studies have shown the greatest benefits to improving mood and self-esteem occur just after five minutes of green exercise.
Not only this, but the natural environment provides an area conducive for social interaction with friends, while also providing us with an escape from the stresses of everyday life.
How to set goals?
Many of us set goals for the New Year for various health reasons. When setting a New Year’s resolution we should make sure it follows the SMART goal setting framework:
- Time Measured
Setting specific goals means instead of saying “I’m going to lose weight” or “I’m going to start exercising”, you would say “I’m going to go walking three time a week” or “I’m going to lose two pounds”. By doing this you’re making your goals measureable. But remember, take small steps – taking on too much at once makes many quit through seeing no progress.
Most importantly, any goal you set should be attainable and realistic. For example, say “I’m going to go walking for 30 minutes, three times a week” or “I’m going to lose two pounds in three weeks”.
Finally, by making your goals time measured, you can celebrate reaching milestones and thus keep increasing motivation to succeed with your goals.
Hopefully this article highlighted some of the benefits of conducting physical activity in nature. If you’d like to hear more about my research or even volunteer to participate in some of my research to witness for yourself the benefits of conducting outdoor exercise, I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks and I wish you all a prosperous and successful New Year!
For more information on the University of the Highlands and Islands health-related programmes and research, visit www.uhi.ac.uk