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Alcohol and Mental Health

Green Exercise: The Benefits of Being Active in Nature

November 9, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
November 9, 2023
18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
November 9, 2023
18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
November 9, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
November 9, 2023
18 min read

Ever noticed how good you feel after being outside around trees, a garden, or the ocean? Maybe you had a tough day at work, but a walk through a park gave you a renewed perspective. Or maybe you hiked a trail around a pond and felt reinvigorated. 

This isn’t just in your head: a growing amount of research confirms that exercising in nature elevates our mood and enhances our well-being. In this post, we’ll explore green exercise and why being physically active in the great outdoors — also known as green fitness — is so beneficial. Let’s dive in! 

What Is Green Exercise?

A lady doing exercise in the nature

Green exercise is any form of physical activity that takes place in nature or natural environments. This includes urban green spaces like city parks and campuses maintained by people or in natural green spaces with minimal human upkeep. 

Green exercise includes a variety of activities, such as running through the forest, walking through a neighborhood park, gardening, horse riding, hiking a mountain, biking a trail, or even flying kites. Other examples include yoga on the beach, paddle-boarding, kayaking or canoeing, rollerblading, rock climbing, pickleball, golf, tennis, or even just playing outside with children. 

Truly, any sort of physical activity outside qualifies as green exercise.

What Are the Benefits of Green Exercise?

Connecting with nature is vital for our health and well-being. In fact, researchers hypothesize that because our hunter-gatherer ancestors existed for thousands of years in outdoor environments, we have an innate connection with nature. 

The problem is that our modern lifestyle isn’t conducive to spending much time outdoors: we spend most of our lives indoors, glued to computers, phones, or TV screens. Some city planners are recognizing this, and they’re starting to put more emphasis on creating functional green spaces. 

Green exercise is one way we can start reconnecting with nature — and a growing body of research suggests it provides numerous physical and psychological benefits. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

1. Improved Mood and Happiness

Studies have demonstrated the connection between exercise and improved mood, as well as nature and improved mood. When these two are combined, the mood-boosting effects are even more powerful.

Whenever we exercise, our body releases feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins. These chemicals give us that natural “high” and make us feel less stressed. Similarly, when we’re out in nature, our body releases endorphins that interact with the opiate receptors in our brain. This can help reduce the perception of pain and increase our sense of well-being.

Studies show that compared to indoor walking, outdoor walking creates greater improvements in mood, revitalization, positive engagement, and enjoyment. Similarly, outdoor exercisers rate their sessions as more restorative compared to those who work out indoors. 

Furthermore, exposure to natural sunlight combined with physical activity is thought to increase our body’s serotonin levels, which can improve our well-being and happiness. A deficiency in serotonin is often linked to depression, anxiety, fatigue, and impaired cognitive function. 

Overall, research shows that physical activity in natural landscapes can improve mental health by reducing levels of stress and anxiety — and may even improve symptoms of depression. Interestingly, some studies show that for those struggling with mental disorders, green exercise is particularly beneficial in improving their mood and self-esteem. 

2. Reduced Stress

Experts have found a clear link between exercise and stress reduction, and nature and stress reduction. When the two are combined, we’re getting a double dose of wellness. 

Multiple studies show that green exercise is incredibly effective at reducing stress. This is largely because green exercise reduces our body’s stress hormones — such as cortisol and adrenaline — helping us feel calmer. 

Interestingly, this has even been found among children: one study found that children in outdoor classes with higher levels of physical activity experience a sharper decline of cortisol compared to children in a regular school setting.

3. Improved Sleep

Another benefit of green fitness is improved quantity and quality of sleep. Multiple studies have concluded that exercising in nature can lead to longer, better sleep at night. 

Interestingly, sunlight plays a particularly important role in helping us sleep. Our body’s internal clock follows the sun, making us feel awake during the daytime and sleepy at night. Although artificial lights can mimic natural light, direct sunlight has 200 times the intensity of office lights in a closed room. Sunlight thus affects our circadian rhythm much more than electric light. 

Exposure to sunlight through green exercise can improve our sleep by helping us feel more tired at night, shortening the time it takes to fall asleep, and improving the overall quality of our rest. Plus, the vitamin D we receive from sunlight is good for our overall health, contributing to stronger bones and muscles.

4. Boosted Immune Function 

Green exercise can also give our immune system a boost, helping it function more efficiently. If we live in a completely sterile environment, our immune system can lose its ability to recognize what is and isn’t dangerous. When this occurs, it might target any microorganism it comes across, which can lead to chronic inflammation. 

Being exposed to benign microorganisms found in nature can help prepare it for more serious infections. 

5. Better Breathing

Green exercise and green fitness help us breathe better and lower our risk of respiratory concerns. Indoor concentrations of air pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations.

Air pollution can trigger allergies, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. However, a study found that people with more exposure to greenery in their neighborhoods were 34% less likely to die from respiratory diseases compared to those with the least greenery. 

While the freshest air is typically in places with high air circulation — such as in an open field or on top of a mountain — we can still reap the benefits in a city park or garden.

6. Enhanced Mindfulness

Another benefit of green exercise is that it enhances mindfulness or present-moment awareness. Our modern world is full of stimuli — from flashing screens to vibrating phones — competing for our attention. This ongoing overstimulation can increase our stress levels, even if we don’t realize it. 

Nature, on the other hand, provides a mental and emotional refuge. The natural world offers a variety of sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that help calm our mind and body, such as bird songs or the scents of flowers . 

Research shows that exercising in nature helps us feel more relaxed and focused, especially when we take time to notice our surroundings. We can do this more easily with slow-paced, contemplative activities, such as hiking in the woods or kayaking on a lake. 

7. More Motivation To Exercise

Green exercise might also boost our motivation to exercise in the future. Studies reveal that people who incorporate outdoor exercise into their fitness regimen have better adherence to their exercise routine. This is partly because outdoor exercise offers a nice change of pace from gyms and makes physical activity more interesting. Being outside also makes it easier to socialize, as we may converse with different people along the way without the distraction of electronics. 

Furthermore, natural landscapes provide us with more interesting things to view. The visual distraction decreases our rate of perceived exertion, allowing us to train longer and harder. Completing a long, challenging hike, trail run, or bike ride leaves us craving more!

Diagram about the benefits of green exercise

What About Virtual Nature? 

So, what about virtual nature — immersing ourselves in photographs, video, or soundscapes of the natural world? While it may help improve our mood, representations of nature can’t completely replace actual time spent in nature. 

Research suggests that it may not simply be the sights and sounds of nature that boost our mood. It’s the full combination of nature's sights, sounds, smells, and textures that affect our state of mind more strongly than a virtual replica. 

Even so, viewing videos of nature scenes, having indoor foliage or flowers, seeing nature through a hospital room window, or simply having green classroom walls can boost physical and mental well-being. 

Interestingly, studies show that natural elements in the workplace enhance job satisfaction and performance, in addition to mental health. For instance, office workers with a view of trees report significantly less job stress and higher job satisfaction — even after controlling for age, gender, and job category. Similarly, work settings that include gardens, walking paths, reflecting ponds, trees, and windows overlooking natural areas tend to enhance performance.

Are Some Outside Environments Better Than Others?

Some studies show that physical activity in cultivated settings — such as a crowded park — has fewer positive results than exercising in wild forest environments. Other studies have found that our connectedness to nature, rather than mere exposure to natural environments, are keys to experiencing benefits from green exercise. 

While more research is needed, experts agree that we can all benefit from any type of physical activity in any outdoor setting. 

How Much Green Fitness Do We Need for Benefits? 

Some studies suggest that engaging in just five minutes of green exercise can yield benefits, such as improved mood and self-esteem. However, other studies show that spending at least 120 minutes in nature per week leads to the most significant boost in our health and well-being. It doesn’t matter whether we go for a 2-hour chunk all at once or break it up into smaller daily segments — the benefits are the same. 

Overall, the greater the time spent doing green exercise, the greater the benefits. Interestingly, one study suggests that these benefits increase even more if we’re exercising in the presence of water. 

Tips for Engaging in Green Exercise

We don’t have to do a triathlon or marathon to enjoy exercise in nature. Any activity that gets our body moving — gardening, walking our dog, or even washing our car — can offer health benefits.

Here are some other activities we can try outside: 

  • Hiking, walking, running
  • Skiing and snowboarding
  • Stand-up paddleboarding
  • Swimming
  • Roller-skating
  • Mountain biking or regular biking
  • Kayaking or canoeing
  • Yoga
  • Team sports like volleyball, tennis, basketball, softball, kickball, pickleball

Keep in mind that it’s important to take some precautions before exercising outdoors. For instance, while the sun is beneficial, we should protect our skin with sunscreen. It’s also important to stay hydrated, so bring along a water bottle!

The Bottom Line 

Green exercise offers a number of physical and mental health benefits, from improving our mood to helping us feel more calm and relaxed. It may even help us exercise more! While a single session outdoors can yield benefits, we’ll likely experience a greater sense of health and well-being the more regularly we exercise outdoors. So, go outside and get moving! You might be surprised at how good you feel afterwards.

If you’re looking to improve your health and well-being, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and enhance their physical, mental, and emotional health.

Summary FAQs

1. What is green exercise?

Green exercise is any form of physical activity that takes place in nature or natural environments, such as running through the forest, walking through our neighborhood park, gardening, horse riding, hiking a mountain, biking a trail, or doing yoga on the beach.

2. What are the benefits of green exercise?

Green exercise offers numerous physical and mental health benefits that enhance our well-being. It can reduce stress, improve our mood and sleep quality, boost our immune function, enhance mindfulness, and even motivate us to exercise more.

3. Is virtual nature beneficial, too?

While viewing videos of nature scenes or listening to the sound of ocean waves can be beneficial, studies suggest that being fully immersed in nature — with all the sights, sounds, smells, and textures — has a greater effect on our physical and mental well-being.

4. How much green exercise should we do to reap the benefits?

Even just five minutes of green exercise can boost our mood, but experts agree that the more time we spend exercising in nature, the greater the benefits. Studies show that spending at least 120 minutes in nature per week leads to the most significant boost in our health and well-being.

5. What are some ideas to try for green exercise?

There are an endless amount of options when it comes to green exercise. The goal is to just get moving outside in nature. Some ideas include hiking, walking, running, skiing, snowboarding, paddleboarding, swimming, roller-skating, biking, kayaking, or participating in group sports like volleyball, tennis, or kickball.

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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