Government guidance on exercise states that adults aged between 19 - 64 years should exercise at least 150 minutes a week. However, with the world of continuous work and other distractions, it’s becoming increasingly easier to skip proper breaks to alleviate stress, not to mention missing out on the recommended amount of exercise. Recent studies have shown that working out outdoors, also known as ‘green exercise’, whether that be for 30 minutes or 3 hours, is both beneficial for your physical health and also excellent for your mental wellbeing. In this article, we look at the mental benefits of exercise outdoors, and why you can make it part of your daily life.

Why is outdoor exercise so good for your mental health?

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  • It increases your Vitamin D consumption. During the darker winter months, coming across sunlight isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Not only is it a pain due to the chilly conditions, but can also have a big impact on your vitamin D levels, of which sunshine is a superb source. While this isn’t a blanket statement, everyday struggles with mental health are often attributed to the lack of sunlight, which during the winter is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. This can lead to a lowering of serotonin levels, which can have a massive impact on your appetite and mood. Scientific research shows that when it comes to improving your vitamin D levels, a high-intensity exercise routine that takes place outdoors dramatically increases your intake, and will, in turn, raise your serotonin levels. For example, a recent 2017 study showed that when one group of walkers spent the same amount of time hiking as another group on a treadmill, the serotonin levels of the hikers were exponentially better than those on the treadmill. However, it doesn’t even need to be an intense session to improve your mood. Even just a walk in the park or through quiet streets, even for 15-30 minutes during daylight hours, can do wonders for brightening up your day.
  • It helps with your sleep. Many people in the UK struggle with their sleep, and while there is the view this is in some part to do with the amount of time we spend on screens, regular exercise can really help. Even something as simple as going for a walk during the late afternoon or early evening has been proven to help you relax and can improve the quality of sleep. Not only does a series of good sleeps improve your brain function, mood and wellbeing, it is also known to make a positive impact on our immune and hormonal systems, especially for those suffering from cancer or other serious illnesses. If you do go this route of a long walk to help you sleep, it’s also a good idea to avoid a big meal, smoking and drinking before you hit the hay.
  • Allows the endorphins flow. You may well have heard this before, but as well as being good for your physical health, exercise is great for releasing neurotransmitters known as endorphins, which relieve the body of stress and pain.This feeling of elation is often referred to as a ‘runner's high’. Exercising outside, preferably in the cold, is an excellent opportunity for releasing a greater load of endorphins. This is because as the body expends more energy to fight the cold, in turn, it releases more endorphins. Much like the intake of vitamin D and the increase in serotonin, the release of endorphins through regular exercise outdoors can help your mood, also regulate sleep, reduce anxiety, and help to build up self-esteem.
  • It gets the blood pumping. That’s not the only way exercise can help increase your self-esteem.When you workout outdoors, you receive an increased supply of blood circulation around the brain, which can also contribute to an improved self-esteem and greater all-round sense of wellbeing.

How does outdoor exercise benefit your mental health?

Perfectly negotiates the work/life balance

When you have an outdoor hobby, whether that be walking, running, swimming, mountain biking, or anything else, you can let go of your time spent indoors at work.

Spending your time working out in another closed setting such as the gym does not give you as much of a 'change of scenery', and therefore not arguably enough of a difference to truly let go of stress created by work. Spending time outside either on your lunch breaks or during the weekend will help you gain perspective and reduce any anxieties you may have.

Nature has all-around therapeutic qualities

There’s a reason why people use the sounds of a forest as audio when looking for a way to get rid of stress. Natural sounds, whether it be a rain forest or waterfall, or even just the chirping of birds can help lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is also able to curb the fight or flight response in your brain. Now, combine that but in real time with the aesthetically pleasing surroundings of a hiking trip and ask yourself, is there any better way to unwind?

Helps you connect with others

Not only does time spent walking reduce stress, but if it’s time spent with others, it can also help improve relationships and social interactions.Being able to talk to someone else about what’s on your mind whilst walking with nature is not only a great way to relieve stress, but being outside can also help you with prosocial behavior such as engaging with others, showing generosity, and feeling empathy towards them. You don’t even need to be with someone for better connections. If you’re feeling ‘in your own head’ and like you’re losing perspective, a simple 90 minute walk through a field will help lower brain activity that is linked to negative thoughts. This might just help you be able to understand and empathize with others better once your walk is done. Give it a go!

Gives the brain time to heal

During working hours, we spend so much time trying to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Multi-tasking wears our brains down, and means that ultimately, we are only using our short-term memory and that dealing with simple things will often start to feel difficult and stressful. There’s only so much distraction your prefrontal cortex (the front part of your brain) can take before it needs a break. Not only is a pastime like hiking a great stress relief, but it’s also been proven to be able to help you recharge cerebrally, and improve your memory. Further to this, research also shows that longer periods of time spent in nature can relax the brain and improve problem-solving skills by up to 50%.

It allows creativity to run wild

Feel like you’ve been struggling to let your imagination flow in recent times?It is believed that famous creatives such as Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway were great fans of long walks, as it allowed them time to refresh their minds and gave them time to think about what they wanted to think.Studies have backed this up, showing that time spent outdoors has great restorative properties, helping the brain become more c

Can’t think of what to do with your time outside? Here are some options to get you started.

Easy outdoor activities

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  • Going for a walk. It’s already been mentioned a few times in this article, but it’s the best place to start. Even if you’ve got a busy schedule, try encomparating a walk into your everyday routine, whether that’s part of your commute, a dog walk or just catching up with a friend. Walking reduces stress, so anything you can do will help. Check out our article about how it can also be a great place to start after an injury.
  • Riding your bike. Often feels like something we just do as a means of transportation, but going for a cycle can also do a lot to mentally unwind. It is thought to promote means of calm and wellbeing, and with the rhythmic breathing and leg movements, it is also seen as having meditative purposes. Find out more about the health benefits of riding your bike right here, or alternatively if you’re looking to find a new cycle route, we’ve got a PLAY article on that too.
  • Heading off for a hike. This one may require a little more planning than the previous two activities, but there aren’t many better feelings than hiking stress relief. The benefits to spending a day or longer outside are endless, and it’s an activity that doesn't require an enormous amount of training to do. Thinking about where to head for your next trip? Our PLAY article on the best one day hikes in the UK is a great place to start.
  • Heading out to work out? If you’re looking to bring a routine to the outdoors, we’ve got a selection of exercises right here.