The health benefits of time spent in nature have been well documented throughout history, from lowering stress hormones to reducing blood pressure and promoting mindfulness.
Simply being outdoors in green space can help calm our minds and help us feel good. Jack Donnelly, physiologist at AXA Health, explores how when it's combined with physical activity of any kind, our whole mind-body health reaps the benefits.
Calming and de-stressing the body and mind
We live in an age where our stress levels seem to be higher than ever, where even the most calm of people will admit that, at times, the ‘overwhelm’ can creep in and take hold.
With pressure to perform at work, to balance that with home life ‘challenges’, not to mention the constant ‘dinging’ from our smartphones, it’s important that we find ways to help us cope with it all.
Getting outside and really taking in what you see, hear and feel can aid stress management, be it running in a forest, hiking in the hills or jogging along the beach.
Fractals in nature
Interestingly, it has been found that the naturally occurring shapes of nature, such as leaves, snowflakes, ocean waves, flowers and clouds have been found to have a calming effect on us and can reduce stress levels by up to 60%1.
The reason for this, scientists suggest, is due to the fractal makeup of these shapes. Fractals are repetitive patterns that are identical or similar. The human eye picks this up, which in turn relaxes us. The trick with this method is to turn our attention away from the stressful thoughts we are having and moving it towards the environment as we see and feel it.
Try to be aware of your surroundings and how you are experiencing them – what do you see? What do you feel? It’s best to do this without music or other distractions such as phones, so you can truly switch off and focus on what’s around you2. If you can, on your next walk or run outside, leave your headphones at home and turn your phone on flight mode, ‘switch off’ and just ‘be’.
When to get outside
There are also proven benefits associated with getting outdoors in the morning, right after waking, where possible.
Exposure to sunlight in the morning (even through cloud cover) can set you up better for your day and even help you sleep better by helping to regulate our body’s circadian rhythm3. Circadian rhythm, otherwise known as our ‘sleep-clock’, is the body's internal process that helps balance our sleep-wake cycle and repeats every 24 hours.
Getting outside within the first hour of waking can help you feel more alert during the day and lead to a reduction of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone produced first thing in the morning by the body, so reducing this through intentional sunlight exposure can have you feeling less stressed as the day progresses.
Increase in our Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential micro-nutrient, as it helps keep our muscles, bones and teeth healthy via calcium and phosphate absorption. If we don’t get enough Vitamin D our bones can become weak and soft potentially leading to osteoporosis and bone/joint pain4.
Our body can make Vitamin D from sunlight, which is fantastic if you get enough exposure to do so. But in the UK, it’s very easy to become Vitamin D-deficient because the sun just isn’t strong enough all year round.
During the summer months however, (roughly April to September), it is possible to get enough Vitamin D production from exposure to the sun - it’s the UVB rays specifically that enable us to produce Vitamin D from sunlight.
As little as 10-15 minutes sun exposure can be enough to make enough Vitamin D. However, this does vary from person-to-person according to skin colour and the amount of skin exposed.
Between 11am and 3pm seems to be the best time to get sun exposure for Vitamin D production. Exposing the hands, forearms, lower legs and face to the sun uncovered when outdoors, seems to be an effective means of getting UVB exposure. But sitting by a window isn’t, as UVB rays can’t penetrate window glass.
If you are going to spend a prolonged amount of time in the sun (longer than 10-15 minutes), make sure to either cover your skin or apply at least SPF15 sunscreen regularly to avoid reddening and burning of the skin (a leading cause of skin cancer).
While walking is one of the easiest ways to start being more active, if you want to level up, the following suggestions can be incorporated into your normal routines.
If you enjoy doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) style weights sessions, a ‘home-made’ bootcamp in the park or back garden could be a great way of doing this through the summer months.
You can get all the same benefits from HIIT but with the added benefits from being outside. If body weight exercise is more your thing, all you need is enough space outside and away you go (and perhaps a mat for added comfort!).
Cardio-based exercise can easily be moved outside if you normally use a gym. If you like long runs, easy enough, just lace up your shoes and head off.
There are many apps available that can even help plan out your route based on your goal and level of fitness. If you prefer HIIT-style running on the treadmill, hill sprints can be a great outdoor alternative. Find a decent hill, sprint to the top, walk back down and repeat as necessary. Of course, you can adjust the work:rest periods as required for your goals.
The same can be said for cycling, although it comes with the pre-requisite of owning or having access to a bike.
If rowing is more your thing, it might be a bit trickier. As you need a) access to a boat and b) a big enough stretch of water to make it appropriate for rowing. Rowing outdoors therefore usually requires a bit more planning, organising, cost and perhaps travel considerations (as joining a rowing club may be necessary) compared to rowing in a gym or using a rowing machine at home. However, it can easily be argued that it’s worth it for the benefits of being outdoors.
There are also usually many clubs in most cities and towns for running and cycling that you can join as well to make it more social if you wish to or if you want some coaching to go alongside your training.
Yoga can easily be taken outside, whether it be into the garden, a park, the beach, or forest! If you have your mat, the options are pretty much limitless.
The physical and mental health benefits of yoga are plenty, since it promotes a mind-body connection through breathwork and movement at the same time. A great activity to unwind after a long day, it helps improve flexibility and muscle strength and tone, as well as fostering a sense of calm5.
Exercising outdoors is a potent combination for health and wellbeing. Being among nature and green space can help us find our calm and de-stress our minds. Find out more about about the mental health benefits of nature in our article by Eugene Farrell, Mental Health Lead at AXA Health.
Watch Eugene as he demonstrates a quick walking mindfulness exercise that can be helpful during times of stress or anxiety:
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