Recent studies show how outdoor physical activity exerts positive effects on our physical and mental health
Writer: Aglaia Freccero
Editor: Jagoda Pawlak
Artist: Lucie Gourmet
The positive effect of the “great outdoors”, including forests, parks and seaside, on human health has been known since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Due to the pollution and the overcrowding of cities, green exercise became a form of escapism. Around this time, philanthropists started to build green areas within cities to improve the overall health of the population, giving rise to healing gardens and healthcare facilities. Nowadays, as the relationship with nature has weakened with the development of human society, people crave the restorative properties of nature to unwind and undertake outdoor exercise.
In the uncertainty that followed the arising of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have requested the population to practice social distancing and home isolation. Following the new guidelines, billions of people around the world have experienced disruption in their daily routines with reduced movement and fewer physical interactions. However, this has not come without consequences on our wellbeing. The research literature on how life changes affect people’s wellbeing is extensive. Exercise, outdoor activities and interpersonal contact are thought to have a positive impact on the health of the population. A recent study by Lades et al. this June examined the variation in people’s emotional wellbeing in association with their performed activities. It was found that the time spent outdoors in activities such as walking, gardening and pursuing hobbies was associated with increased wellbeing.
The 2008 Health Survey for England demonstrated that only 40% of men and 28% of women met the weekly minimal exercise requirements. Lack of exercise leads to a wide variety of physical and mental illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, stress, anxiety and depression. Despite the essential role of exercise on general health, various studies suggest the importance of the outdoors. Outdoor activities should then be encouraged to meliorate people’s overall wellbeing. One study showed that people living surrounded by outdoor green space experienced better health. In fact, in an environment in which 90% of the surroundings are green, a small portion of the residents consider themselves unhealthy. However, in areas where just 10% of the environment is green, more inhabitants feel unhealthy. Since then, research on the benefits of the outdoors on health has become an increasingly important field of interest.
The term “green exercise” was first employed in the article “The Mental and Physical Health Outcomes of Green Exercise” in 2005, and refers to physical activity in a green setting. In the experiment, five groups of 20 subjects were shown a sequence of images representing urban and rural areas while running on a treadmill, whereas the control ran without any exposure to the figures. The experiment analysed the correlation of exercise with one physical (blood pressure) and two psychological measures (self-esteem and mood). When exposed to positive rural and urban pictures, there was an increase in the subjects’ self esteem, showing the effectiveness of green exercise both in rural and urban pleasant settings. In addition to providing physiological and social relief, nature was shown to be instrumental in allowing rapid recovery from fatigue and restoring attention.
As the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor exercise are now widely accepted, governments should promote outdoor physical activity, especially among city-dwellers. In times of climate change, this could encourage local and governmental interventions to preserve green areas, which would make a positive impact on protecting the environment at risk and lead to a more sustainable future.
Gladwell, V. F. (2013). The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme Physiology and Medicine. 2 (3).
Hartig, T. (2006). Essay: Healing gardens – places for nature in health care. Lancet. 386, pp. S36-S37.
Lades, L. K. (2020). Daily emotional well‐being during the COVID‐19 pandemic. British Journal of Health Psychology.
Maas, J. et al. (2006). Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation? J Epidemiol Community Health. 60, pp. 587-592.
Pretty, J. et al. (2006). The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. Int. J. Environ. Health Res. 15 (3), pp. 319-317.