Running through the forest. Cycling through your neighborhood park. Walking alongside a river. To most people, “green exercise”—intentionally being physically active in natural environments—feels good, and growing research evidence confirms its benefits (Calogiuri, Patil & Aamodt 2016). Here’s a look at what the latest findings tell us about why you may want to incorporate green exercise into your training programs—and even suggest specific nature-based practices for stress reduction and general well-being.
Defining Green Exercise
Green exercise is any form of physical activity that takes place in urban green spaces like city parks and campuses maintained by people or in natural green spaces with minimal human upkeep.
While the definition encompasses any physical activity in these environments, most studies done so far have examined walking, running and cycling (though some have included gardening, fishing, horseback riding and more). Study subjects have typically been nonexercisers, but some research has included regular exercisers and competitive athletes (Lawton et al. 2017).
What the Research Says
Study findings on green exercise speak loudly: The advantages of exercising in healthy, natural environments go beyond the benefits of exercising in synthetic indoor locations. Green exercise delivers physical, mental and even spiritual rewards and has positive effects on health, well-being and athletic performance. Being active in nature has many advantages compared with doing the same activity inside or on city streets:
- more stress relief
- clearer thinking
- improved attention and concentration
- enhanced mood and more happiness
- less anxiety
- greater self-confidence
- more vitality
- more feelings of being refreshed
- reduced pain sensations
- less fatigue for the same amount of physical work
- improved quantity and quality of nighttime sleep
- enhanced mindfulness
or present-moment awareness
(Bowler et al. 2010; Lawton et al. 2017)
For sports performance, studies have identified the following advantages when athletes train and compete in green spaces:
- enhanced performance
- increased satisfaction
- less perceived effort when running outdoors compared with running on a treadmill
- less tension, confusion, anger and depression
- more feelings of being refreshed, restored and revitalized
- better mood
- better “optic flow”—a cue for assessing fatigue and exertion—resulting in athletes working harder than they physiologically perceive themselves to be working
(Donnelly et al. 2016; Rogerson 2017)
In one study, researchers examined performances by 128 track-and-field athletes in four locations rated for greenness. Data analysis showed that greenness predicted performance: A majority of athletes achieved their best performances at the greenest sites (DeWolfe, Waliczek & Zajicek 2011). These athletes self-selected for study inclusion, so results cannot be generalized. More research is needed on the role of landscaping and environment on track-and-field performance.
Mike Rogerson, PhD, a researcher at the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Essex in Colchester, England, and author of several green-exercise studies, suggests that “combining environmental manipulations with physiology and performance data may afford new possibilities for coaches to better design training sessions and programs for optimal physiological and psychological impact” (Rogerson 2017).
Researchers theorize about why green exercise offers so many health benefits —including boosting the body’s self-healing through the immune system, giving the brain essential rest from technostress and overstimulation, and affecting our psychology and physiology through our innate affinity for the color green—but exact reasons are still to be determined. The theory that exposure to nature is in itself beneficial to people is bolstered by studies that show that viewing videos of nature scenes, having indoor foliage or flowers, seeing nature through a hospital room window, or simply having green classroom walls boosts mental and physical well-being and performance (Hansen, Jones & Tocchini 2017; van den Berg et al. 2016).
For example, when 14 indoor cyclists were exposed to a tinted red, green or achromatic gray video of a rural cycling course, University of Essex researchers found that participants had the least mood disturbance and lowest rating of perceived exertion while they were watching the natural green video. Study authors noted that their findings pointed to potential cognitive mechanisms underlying the benefits of green exercise (Akers et al. 2012).
Other positive aspects of green exercise include sensory stimulation, which awakens present-moment awareness ; physical challenge and the self-confidence gained from achievement; a sense of play; and feelings of connection with nature and with the family, friends and pets with whom we’re sharing the outdoor time.
Any effort to study effects of physical activity in green spaces must account for other potential influences on research outcomes. Some argue that green-exercise benefits are simply due to physical activity, but researchers have conducted analyses that still find advantages after controlling for activity level and type (Bowler et al. 2010). Other researchers suggest that, like music, nature is a way to positively distract participants as they exercise.
For more information, please see “Green Exercise: How It Benefits Your Clients?” in the online IDEA Library or in the March 2018 print edition of Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.