Growing up in Miami, Florida, I was outside most of the time. I played baseball, basketball, and football, rode bikes, walked and ran, and went to the beach. In high school, I was on the track and tennis teams, and I continued to play tennis recreationally at the University of Miami.
This all changed when I moved to Chicago for graduate school and then to neighboring Indiana for my first job as a university professor. The Midwest's stiflingly humid summers and bitter winters with little snow made it less appealing to be exercising outside on a regular basis. I took up squash, an indoor racquet sport, and played three times per week for the 17 years I lived in that part of the country. When possible, I spent time outdoors gardening, biking, running, walking, and cross-country skiing.
Being an athlete was part of my identity and I was especially passionate about squash for its physical intensity and social connection. In 1988, I was fortunate to be offered a faculty position at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Surrounded by impressive mountains that invited hiking, snowshoeing and skiing, not to mention red rock deserts just a few hours to the south, I gradually lost interest in squash.
There was no mistaking the pull of the wild, the air and light, the forests and peaks, revealing their glory in all the different seasons. I realized that underneath the pleasure of coordinated athletic movement was something deeper: the profound grace of moving through outdoor spaces that was imprinted in childhood. I haven't played squash in many years and only go indoors for slow movement exercises like yoga or Rosen Method Movement.
To my delight, I recently came across research showing that outdoor exercise confers special benefits compared to exercising in synthetic environments—benefits primarily related to psychological state. Outdoor exercise makes people happier, less fatigued and angry, more tranquil and relaxed, and bestows a more lasting energy boost compared to indoor exercise. Even five minutes of green exercise (like walking across a park or campus) is likely to boost self-esteem and mood. Green exercise is experienced as more restorative and is more likely to increase a person's frequency of exercise compared to indoor exercise, and all these effects are enhanced with both duration and intensity of outdoor exercise.
Actually, I can think of some dangerous side effects related to things like air pollution, frostbite, urban traffic while biking, and jogging at night in unsafe neighborhoods. But let's assume you are not taking on any of these risks and that you can find a safe and expansive location for your workout.
All forms of exercise are good for you. The obvious question is why outdoor locations confer this extra benefit. If you've read any of my other posts in this blog, you probably know what I'm going to say. The key to understanding these effects is the body sense.
There is something unique about being outside, even without exercising, that brings us back to present moment of feelings and sensations, to our body sense. Outside, it is somehow easier to shed the ruminative thoughts and worries, the inner dialogues and routine mental ruts, and just feel our bodies in concert with nature.
I feel it with my body, with my blood.
Feeling all those trees, all this country . . .
When this wind blow, you can feel it.
Same for country, you can feel it.
You can look, but feeling . . .
That make you.
This quote from Australian Aboriginal Elder, Big Bill Neidjie, beautifully expresses how the natural world can wake up our body sense and in so doing, help us to remember who we are.
There is now science to support the effects of the environment on our body sense. So called restorative environments have been shown to bring us more in touch with ourselves and remind us what is important in our lives; and they enhance our sense of connection - a feeling of "oneness" - between ourselves and other people, animals, plants and trees, and the earth itself. Our evolutionary history, millions of years of living in close proximity to nature, helps us to make sense of the simple and powerful effect that nature has on our embodied self-awareness.
From "The secret teachings of plants," "Our sensory organs are meant to perceive the world. The sensory capacities of the human ear were shaped by the sounds of the world, our smell formed through long associations with the delicate chemistries of plants, our touch by the nonlinear, multidimensional surfaces of Earth, our sight by the images that constantly flow into our eyes. Human senses emerged from immersion in the world. They are part of Earth."
Access to green areas such as parks and nearby countryside has been shown to enhance cognitive functioning, reduce stress, improve sensory and motor skills in both children and adults, and ameliorate the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
A green wilderness or park area cannot be fully appreciated without moving through it, most especially on foot or on a human powered conveyance like a bicycle, canoe, skis, skates, or a wheelchair. As Kimerer LaMothe has also described in her Psychology Today blog, outdoor exercise can enhance our engagement with and absorption in nature as we learn to pay close attention to our bodies while hiking a rocky slope, cycling on a dirt path, or rafting through a rapid.
So, outdoor exercise restores us by bringing us back to ourselves. But what if we are brought back to our physical pain or emotional grief? How can that be beneficial? The miracle of body sense is that what you are sensing does not have to be positive in order to have positive benefits. In this blog, I've written about the importance of sensing into our physical and emotional pain for alleviating it. And, as I've written, sensing into our bodies in the present moment activates neural networks that enhance self-regulation, reduce stress hormones, and boost immune system function. Our brain has a few rudimentary tools for doing this job of self maintenance even when we don't notice ourselves, like adjusting our breathing and heart rate depending on the level of exertion. But when we pay attention to our bodies directly, without thought or judgment, we can substantially amplify the brain's power to heal ourselves.
Our present moment, embodied attention is like opening up a google map for the brain, showing the location and route to the site of the malaise so the brain can send exactly the right immune cells, blood flow and nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters to just the right place. And the natural world, especially when we exert ourselves by moving through it, is our evolutionary app that with a single click can burrow deep inside us to reach whatever needs to be reached at that moment. It's amazing what millions of years of programming can accomplish and the only device you need to access this software is your body, strategically placed in nature and desiring to move and be moved.