While we continue to practice physical distancing to keep each other safe during the pandemic, many of our usual stress-relief outlets like going to the gym, getting a massage or hanging out with friends are not available to us right now. Fortunately, we can still get outside and there is health benefit for us there.
Growing evidence demonstrates that getting outside plays an important part in improving our mental and our physical health.
Physician Assistant Christopher Hart of Samaritan Depoe Bay Clinic encourages his patients to get regular exercise, and being outdoors is a great way to achieve this. As an avid trail runner and hiker, Hart suggests exploring what nature has to offer.
“You might discover it’s rewarding,” he said. “Even a simple walk outside can reduce feelings of depression and boost energy levels.”
Numerous studies suggest that outdoor exercise is associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement.
The outdoors can offer a more rigorous workout than the gym. For example, we flex our ankles more when we run or walk on uneven ground 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.
Additionally, cycling, running and walking outdoors also tends to be more strenuous because of wind resistance, compared to a climate-controlled indoor environment.
And the extra motivation to get to the top of a hill or to reach that beautiful viewpoint, can also power you forward in ways a treadmill cannot.
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.
Some studies have indicated that exposure to direct sunlight or a reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol from exertion outside 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.
Nature can also provide pleasant distraction from our troubles.
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, trees, mountains, bodies of water, even neighborhood gardens — can offer solace from stress.
Take time during a walk or run to notice the sounds and smells around you. Pay attention to the colors and textures; notice what is blooming today, or how the sun glints on some trees while casting others in shadow.“As long as we are in a safe place and the weather isn’t inclement, getting outside for some exercise each day can be beneficial,” said Hart.
Some area parks, hiking trails and beaches remain closed due to COVID-19, and others are so crowded that maintaining physical distancing is problematic. Try to find a locale that offers you natural beauty and a safe way to exercise and be sure to carry a mask with you in case you encounter others in areas in which allowing six feet of space is not possible.
And if you find that local parks and trails are not a viable option right now, consider the world just beyond your door. Some of the best sources for nature experiences are close at hand, such as the backyard for bird watching and gardening, and the neighborhood for admiring the floral displays and landscapes of neighbors.
Whether you choose forest trails or your city block, why not take time today to get outside for a walk or run or to catch up on yard work. Maybe you’ll discover its good medicine for more than you expected.