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Feature Article Experience the Healing Power of Nature

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Want to experience better mental and physical health?

There’s growing evidence that nature plays an important part in both.

Numerous studies suggest that outdoor exercise is associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement.

Even a simple walk in nature has been associated with reduced feelings of depression.

Certified Physician Assistant Peter Fox of Samaritan Toledo Clinic encourages his patients to get regular exercise, and being outdoors is a great way to achieve this. As an avid hiker and mountain biker, Fox follows this advice.

To improve well-being, he suggests exploring what nature has to offer.

“You might discover it’s rewarding,” Fox said.

The outdoors can offer a more rigorous workout. For example, we flex our ankles more when we run on a trail than on a treadmill. Also, you can only run flat or uphill on a treadmill. Outside, people can include downhill running, walking or hiking, which uses different muscles and can strengthen connective tissue and prevent injury.

Cycling, running and walking outdoors also tends to be more strenuous because of wind resistance, compared to a climate-controlled indoor environment.

Some of nature’s healing powers are not as easy to quantify. People who engage in outdoor activities report greater enjoyment and satisfaction with their workout experience and are more committed to an exercise program. There is not a conclusive scientific explanation for why this occurs. Researchers speculate that exposure to direct sunlight or a reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol might play a role.

Lower levels of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline have been shown to boost immunity and improve mood. It is also associated with a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure and improved sleep.

Consider how you feel when you witness an inspiring sunrise or sunset to start or close the day. Recall the refreshing sensation of stepping outdoors and breathing in fresh air. Encounters with nature — wildlife, mountains, forests and beaches — can be pleasant distractions from troubles. There’s a feeling of accomplishment and reward that comes from reaching the crest of hill or a viewpoint. 

A lot of people are drawn to indoor activities for socializing and companionship. But being in nature doesn’t necessarily mean solitude. It can be a good reason to meet a friend.

To keep motivated, Fox signs up for a couple races each year. He likes to participate in 24-hour mountain bike races with his friends as a team. A few times a week, he meets friends in the morning before work to go trail riding.

“Certainly having a workout partner improves accountability to actually get out and do it,” he said. “If you find that being outdoors makes exercise more enjoyable, then stick with it.”