Get out into the Great Outdoors and enjoy the restorative capacity of exercising in the natural environment - Doctor's Orders! ;-)
Our resident Doctor and Sports Medicine Physician Dr Dan Roiz de Sa explains why we should all get outside more. Even if it means looking at pictures of outside; whilst inside! Over to you Dr Dan.....
Most of us know that exercising is good for us. There is a massive industry revolving around exercise and training. There are gyms and health clubs with all sorts of facilities and machinery that cater for almost every aspect of fitness training.
But did you know that although this sort of exercise is good for you; exercising outdoors and especially right out in the countryside is probably better for you than doing the same thing in a built up environment or even indoors? I bet you didn’t but actually it makes quite a lot of sense.
Our ancestors, in evolutionary terms were hunter gatherers and as such their lives were spent outdoors within the environments in which they lived. Thus we could argue that much of what we have evolved to do come from this developmental background and therefore spending lots of time indoors in our home or working environments is probably not all that good for our overall health.
Humans would not have faced such overwhelming information rich environments in the past as we currently do. For example being out on a country walk will feel restorative whereas walking for the same distance through a very busy street in a modern city will not. The exercise is the same, the environment is not and this is the difference.
Plants and nature, birdsong and the presence of wildlife is very often calming whereas, busy pavements, dodging oncoming pedestrians, the sensory inputs the central nervous system has to process and make sense of like traffic noise, street and traffic lighting, noise and lights from shops we pass by on our walk are varied and many. Our eyes will process all this information, sending it to our brain. We will notice colours from billboards and advertising hoardings and our noses will detect the smells of city and town life. All this information can be overwhelming for the nervous system which really hasn’t had more than a small amount of time (in evolutionary terms) to adapt to this kind of overwhelming sensory input.
Did you know that for example post exercise blood pressure settles to its baseline values faster if you exercise in front of rural scenes rather than those reflecting urban settings? What is this all about? I would argue that it is because we have an innate connection with the natural environment as a consequence of our evolution.
There are other studies that look at heart rate variability (or HRV) and its response to looking at nature scenes or exercising in them. Heart rate variability is something that occurs because of how our heart rates are controlled by the autonomic nervous system. A high variability suggests good or healthy autonomic function; and is inversely correlated with cardiovascular disease. Whilst not a perfect tool; HRV does give us a clue to the readiness of an individual’s nervous system to respond to stress or exercise.
Sitting in an outdoor forest environment increases HRV, and actually even sitting indoors looking at nature scenes does so, when compared to control conditions. Therefore both of these activities are beneficial. But these are resting and not exercising in nature. Could we do better? The simple answer is yes we can.
There are published works that indicate that being outside when exercising is preferable to and more beneficial to mental health than exercising indoors. Some might even go as far as to suggest that not only is being outdoors beneficial that it is even more so if exercise is added.
In other words the benefits of being outdoors and exercising are greater than the sum of the parts. There must therefore not only be a benefit to our psychological processes but also to the changes in our physiological systems and there must be some beneficial interaction between the two.
It is also good for our endocrine system. This is what we mean by the hormone system that controls how our body functions and are also often implicated in ill health. Hormones that are produced by stress: adrenaline; noradrenaline and cortisol are all affected by being within a natural outdoor environment. They all fall, and this is another benefit which results in improvements in our immune system function.
All of this doesn’t mean that all exercise indoors isn’t beneficial: of course it is, and it certainly is better than not doing any. What I would suggest though is that we should all make time to spend more time outdoors exercising (whether it is just a long walk with the dog, or a full on mountain bike trail ride).
City planners in many countries know that access to green spaces is important for aspects of mental wellness; in several countries (Japan, Scandinavia and the Netherlands) it is associated with people living longer and with less mental illness. We should therefore make the most of this largely free and accessible health and wellness resource whenever we can.
Unless you were brought up in a way that encouraged this engagement with nature, it can seem quite daunting and consequently is avoided by many. The country side can for some city dwellers, seem quite a remote and a risky place to go and exercise in. Perceived risks may be exaggerated and fear of these may be preventative in getting people out, about and engaged with activity in nature.
If you do find you feel this way we suggest you share the experience. There is a profound bond that can be created between groups of people who attempt challenges outdoors, or simply go for regular walks with their dogs. Join a rambling society, or a mountaineering expedition! Either way you'll feel better for it.
What we need to do as a society is to ensure that our children, the future generations of the human race, don’t acquire these very often unsubstantiated fears and develop a healthy and enthusiastic love of nature, outdoors and the environment.
Make a plan to go for a walk, run, cycle or whatever else you want to do this weekend. Do it outdoors in nature a reap the benefits. Doctor’s orders ;-)
Oh, and don't forget to.... #RespectYourTemple
Dr Dan Roiz De Sa