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Mother Nature’s Gym

Marie was a client who had long suffered from anxiety. I’d discovered years ago that a walk outside before a strength training workout calmed and focused her mind, resulting in a more effective workout for her and a more positive experience for both of us. When my boss found out, he went ballistic.

“If you didn’t have such a long-standing relationship with Marie, I would fire you,” the owner of the fitness studio told me. “Clients do not leave this gym during their workout.” There I was, one of the most experienced trainers in the studio, threatened with unemployment for simply taking a client for a walk outside. Fortunately, a growing body of research is suggesting a more broad-minded approach to exercising outdoors.

It can’t happen soon enough. Studies are finding that sedentary indoor lifestyles and an over-reliance on technology are knocking people’s lives out of balance. Overuse of electronic media elevates stress and reduces concentration and productivity (Archer 2013). Author and teacher Max Strom outlined the challenge to fitness pros at a 2012 IDEA fitness conference: “The time of speaking of the mind, body and emotions as three separate entities is over.”

Growing numbers of clients are fighting obesity, stress and chronic mood disorders. We can help them by connecting their organized indoor workouts with playful outdoor activity. Think of it as a natural progression of the joy of movement that led us to this profession.

The Science of the Human Brain Outdoors: What Is the “Nature Cure”?

In 2011, researchers evaluated 11 trials involving 833 adults to see whether exercising indoors or outdoors had a greater effect on physical and mental well-being. The conclusion: “Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy” (Thompson et al. 2011). Study authors cautioned that there was not enough high-quality evidence for specific recommendations, so they called for further research.

Blue Mind

Scientists responded by taking the laboratory outdoors. I met one of these researchers on a 2012 kayaking session in Veracruz, Mexico, where we shared our experiences working with aquatic and marine species and also interacting with people in outdoor spaces.

In his new book Blue Mind, to be released in June 2014, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols explores the chemical reactions in the brains of water enthusiasts—swimmers, surfers, deep-sea fisherman and so on. Nichols says that swimming has a balancing affect on the stress hormone catecholamine, producing a relaxation effect similar to that found during meditation. He adds that swimming provides the greatest amount of “cognitive reserve,” the mind’s resilience to damage of the brain (Nichols 2014).

Greening the Mind

Journalist Florence Williams traveled to northern Japan in 2012 to investigate research indicating that walking in a green forest decreases physiological measures such as heart rate and blood pressure. She joined University of Chiba scientist Yoshifumi Miyazaki for a clinical comparison of the brain activity and vital signs of 12 male college students during a walk in a forest versus a walk in an urban setting. Williams was not an official participant in the study, but she did have her vital signs measured. She learned that when she was walking in the forest, oxyhemoglobin concentrations in the prefrontal cortex of her brain declined, showing that her sympathetic nervous system had gotten a restorative break. Her systolic blood pressure had dropped 6 points by the end of the forest walk, whereas it rose 6 points during the city walk (Williams 2012).

Nature-Deficit Disorder

Author Richard Louv created a stir when he published Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin 2013). Since then, he has been an outspoken advocate for getting children (and parents) outdoors to create their own nature experiences. In the book, Louv makes two suggestions that speak directly to the health, fitness, and sporting goods industries:

  • “The outdoor equipment and sporting goods industry faces diminished sales if the divide between the young and nature continues to widen.”
  • “In the ongoing search for answers to [childhood] obesity, [health practitioners] should advocate contact with nature as integral to healthy development and emphasize free outdoor play, especially in natural surroundings” (Louv 2008).

Talk to any outdoor sport enthusiast and you will hear what science is just beginning to discover: Being outdoors feels good. As the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, said, “We’re part of nature . . . and we have a role in nature, and if we separate ourselves from that, we’re separating ourselves from our history, from the things that tie us together” (Louv 2008).

Incorporating Outdoor Activity Into Exercise Programming

Nichols, the marine biologist, believes the ideal workout for yielding maximum benefits to physiological and cognitive function would comprise an outdoor setting, more than one person and a problem-solving component (Nichols 2014). He also says that while exercise in green space is good, adding blue is even better (hiking a trail next to a river or the ocean, for instance), and indoor gyms can accomplish a similar effect by bringing blue spaces indoors.

The practical questions for practitioners boil down to how we extend our exercise programming into outdoor spaces while remaining within our scope of practice.

For some instructors, the connections are obvious. Indoor cycling instructors can join forces with cycling tour operators to lead real outdoor bike trips anywhere in the world. Swim coaches can team up with swim adventure programs to lead masters teams on open-water excursions. Whatever your fitness specialty, you can apply frequency, intensity, time and type (FITT) principles to create an effective training modality.

As fitness and wellness professionals, we can effectively increase the overall health and well-being of our clients by expanding fitness programming to include outdoor activities. We can lead and inspire others to engage in their communities and environment in a way that creates a sustainable lifestyle for future generations.

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