When you think of green exercise, you probably picture hiking and climbing mountains—pretty intense outdoorsy activities. However, green exercise can really involve any activity in which we interact with nature while moving our bodies and breaking a sweat. Believe it or not, this can even happen while exercising indoors.
We’ll look at what green exercise is, how it helps reduce stress and boost mood, and what types of green exercise activities your children can engage in to feel happier and calmer.
What Is Green Exercise?
Green exercise is a term used to describe our interaction with nature while engaging in a physical fitness activity. It was coined in 2003 by Jules Pretty, Ph.D., and Jo Barton, Ph.D., at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. Their focus in this area spurred a great deal of research into how nature and exercise together can benefit our emotional wellbeing.
Dr. Barton and Dr. Pretty have published dozens of studies on the benefits of green exercise. They have shown that exercising in green spaces—no matter if they are in a city or the wilderness—has a positive effect on mood. They also discovered that the effect of exercising near a body of water has an even greater impact on improving mood. Additional researchers from a wide background including physiology, health and well-being, environmental sustainability, community engagement, and behavior change continue to study the link between nature, exercise, and mental health. This groundbreaking work can help all of us find ways to feel happier and calmer by doing something as simple as going for a walk outside or even watching nature scenes while on the treadmill at a fitness gym.
How It Reduces Stress
Experts have found a clear link between exercise and stress reduction, and nature and stress reduction. So, when you combine the two, you get a double dose of wellness! In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some studies show that consistent exercise can be just as effective as medication for some people to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Other research shows that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety than those who do not exercise.
Here are several ways in which green exercise helps reduce stress and anxiety:
Produces Endorphins. When we exercise, our body releases feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins. These chemicals in our brain act as natural painkillers, making us feel better and less stressed. Endorphins are responsible for the natural high we get from a hard workout.
Reduces Stress Hormones. Exercise and being in and around nature reduce the level of stress hormones in our body like adrenaline and cortisol, helping us feel calmer.
Minimizes Fatigue. Exercise improves blood flow and our body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently. These changes in our brain reduce fatigue and improve alertness. This helps us when we are stressed out because we are depleted and need to return to a more balanced level of energy. When we are stressed, many nerves in our brain and throughout our body are impacted. Scientists conclude, therefore, that if our body feels better, then our mind will also feel better.
Provides A Fun Distraction. One of the best parts about exercise and spending time in nature is that these experiences give us a time to take a fun break from the stresses in our daily lives.
Encourages Mindfulness. A great bonus of exercise is that it provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy a mindful moment. While we work out, we can fully engage in the present moment instead of letting our mind run wild with worries. When we combine viewing nature (real or virtual) while we work out, we can get lost in the moment and experience a happiness boost.
Green Exercise Activities For Kids
Green exercise has really taken off in recent years, and there are even Green Gyms in the United Kingdom that combine physical activity with local environmental projects that have shown to improve mental health. There are more than 100 Green Gyms that offer programs consisting of a warm-up, cool-down, and a wide range of environmental activities including gardening, planting trees, digging ponds, managing trails, and more.
By creating opportunities for people to work together in meaningful outdoor projects, the program improves and maintains physical and mental health of volunteers by increasing their physical activity and reducing social isolation. A study from the University of Westminster found that after participating in a Green Gym for two months, volunteers reported higher levels of well-being and lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Researchers also collected saliva samples to measure the stress hormone cortisol, and results showed that volunteers were less anxious. Green Gym also piloted a school program for elementary school students, which resulted in positive behavior and well-being for the children.
While Green Gyms is a very specific green exercise program, there are accessible activities we can choose for our children that incorporate nature. Here are a few ideas to get your kids moving and connecting with nature to feel happier and calmer.
Any type of hiking, whether it’s around your neighborhood or while visiting a National Park, can help your family enjoy some healthy exercise while taking in the beauty of nature.
Spending time in water has a tremendous soothing effect. Experts have noted that swimming produces the same relaxation response as yoga, increasing calming chemicals and allowing us to enter a meditative state. When we swim laps, we can focus on our strokes and breathing, making it easy to shut off all the noises and activity going on outside the pool.
Your kids will love this fun outdoor exercise activity. You can set it up yourself or have them help you. Go through your house and garage and gather a variety of fitness equipment. Create several stations for different activities, such as a jump rope, cones to weave around, a box to jump over, and a basketball net to shoot a ball into. You can also have some stations that do not require equipment; for example, they can do jumping jacks, push-ups, or hop on one foot.
Grab your bikes and bike helmets and head out for a family ride in your neighborhood or through a local park. Riding around together is one of the best ways for your entire family to get some exercise, enjoy the fresh air, take in some natural scenery, and share special moments.
Team sports provide so many incredible benefits beyond just improving physical and mental health. Consider signing your kids up for a team sport that plays outside in the open air, such as soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse, or beach volleyball.
As mentioned before, green exercise doesn’t only have to be reserved for outdoor activities. We can also enjoy nature while exercising indoors. Some ideas include setting up a treadmill or stationary bike near a window with a view of the outdoors or tuning into some nature scenes on your screen while running, doing aerobics or yoga, or whatever other indoor fitness routine you choose. As long as you are connecting with nature in some way, you can experience the benefits of green exercise.
What is your family’s favorite type of green exercise?