Exercise and stress: how exercising in nature can reduce stress

With the stresses and strains of modern life, the incidences of mental health disorders are steadily increasing.

An estimated one in four people in the UK experience a ‘significant’ mental health problem in any one year, which could be depression, panic disorder, anxiety or other common mental illness. But nature can offer a means to reduce the associated symptoms, relieve stress and contribute to enhanced mental wellbeing. 

Green exercise

It may be obvious that exercising in nature can benefit physical health, but there are also many mental health benefits.

Scientific studies have shown that ‘green exercise’ such as walking and cycling can improve self-esteem and mood, reduce stress and anxiety disorders as well as attentional fatigue and depression.

It is not just the physiological effects of exercise, such as the release of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin that cause these responses. By comparing different settings in which you can exercise it was shown that regular use of parks or woods for physical exercise reduced the risk of poor mental health, whereas no such pattern was found with use of non-natural settings such as sports centres or streets.

Regular use of green spaces increases the psychological gains and the closer the green space is to where people live, the more likely they are to use it on a regular basis. This makes urban green space a very important resource with immense value for public mental health.

Green surroundings

The restorative effect of nature is not limited to those who undertake nature-based outdoor activities. Simply living in a ‘green environment’ can reduce stress and increase wellbeing in the people living there, and having views of trees, plants, shrubs and lawn at work can increase employee wellbeing, as reported during questionnaires . It has also been found that having a view of trees and nature from a hospital window can decrease recovery time from surgery.

Whilst a connection between exposure to the natural environment and enhanced wellbeing can clearly be demonstrated, scientists cannot yet fully explain why nature has this effect. Nevertheless, it is abundantly obvious that we need to be surrounded by nature in our everyday lives and have nearby green spaces to use for recreational enjoyment.

Green care

With everything that is now known about the benefits of green space and nature, the use of nature as a therapeutic intervention, also known as ‘green care’ or ‘ecotherapy’, is gaining recognition. Nature-based interventions can involve green exercise, community food growing, environmental conservation or animal based recreation.

For people suffering from dementia, green care has shown some positive results. For example, escorting residents to an outdoor garden reduced aggressive behaviour, and agitated behaviours decreased when residents had access to an outdoor walking path or when corridors were decorated with natural scenes.

According to Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment, nature-based interventions could be part of a new solution for mental health care. However, there is still some way to go before green care is taken up more widely and is able to provide a cost-effective solution for mental health and social service commissioners.

How you can benefit

By undertaking regular visits to your local wood or park, you will likely find that your mind is clearer, your stress levels are lower and you feel generally happier! Find your nearest wood

This blog is one of a series being produced on the theme of ‘Transforming Mental Health and Dementia Provision with the Natural Environment’ to support the conference of that name taking place on 10 November, at St Barts, London. For further details please contact sarah.preston@naturalengland.org.uk