Without a doubt, exercising in Nature offers a vast array of health benefits. It can help lower your risk of heart disease, and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. In one study, researchers found that men and women significantly reduced their stress when they exercised in a forest compared to the same exercise indoors. In another study, researchers found that men and women who exercised in parks and forests reduced their stress-induced headaches.
But honestly, you don’t even need to do a “work out” in Nature to gain benefits. For example, just spending 10 minutes daily walking in a park can lower your blood pressure.
Plus, just spending time in Nature has a meditative, energetic, or even spiritual aspect to it. Very often, I think we mistake the opportunity to be active and move around for the chance to actually “slow down.” Being in Nature helps.
Hemingway once wrote, “never confuse motion with action.”
It seems that being in perpetual, strenuous motion is not really the best goal for good health.
We also know it’s quite possible and increasingly common to overdo it. Indeed, extreme exercise takes a toll on the joints and heart muscle long-term.
By comparison, studies show that gentle exercise or movement–such as swimming, walking, doing work around the house, and doing yard work–gives you more benefits from a practical health standpoint than all the obsessive “conditioning.”
Yoga is one of the best gentle exercises out there. And it’s become extremely popular in the U.S. (At least the pants have.) It’s also an excellent mind-body exercise.
Over the millennia in India, yoga evolved as a way to meditate and attain spiritual insight–a step that would benefit just about everyone. There are about six different forms of yoga–ranging from simple devotion (bhakti yoga), to making your entire daily life a manifestation of the practice (karma yoga). Hatha yoga involves physical postures, exercises and breathing. It’s also more physically strenuous. But ultimately, all forms of yoga should engage the mind and spirit through proper awareness of the body.
To learn more about authentic yoga, and how easily you can attain the practices (without “hot yoga,” rock music, special pants, or panting), see my book Vital Healing: Energy Mind and Spirit in Traditional Medicines of Middle Asia.
Of course, you can also perform yoga and other exercises in the great outdoors. It just needs to become part of your habit. And the more often you do it, the longer you’ll want to stay. In fact, in a recent Australian study, researchers found that frequent park visitors make longer visits, spend more time in their own yards, and travel further into green spaces.
Of course, the vast majority of the United States is still sparsely settled, like Australia. Yet more and more people crowd into dense, urban areas, mostly clinging onto the edges of two seaboards. (Though, these people generally don’t “cling to their guns and Bibles,” as eloquently stated by the President.)
Unlike President Obama, many great U.S. Presidents–from Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt–warned of the toxic effects of the urban mob on democracy. They also spoke of the importance of keeping ties to the land and to Nature.
So why does it seem like everyone in Washington, D.C. has forgotten about the importance of spending time in Nature?
With very few exceptions, you can access the great outdoors within a half-hour drive or commuter train ride from downtown. In fact, while I still lived in the D.C. area, after 9/11, my instinct told me to move away from the Capitol every chance I had.
So–I often took trips “up river” on the Potomac and found myself in increasingly unspoiled Nature. Each lock along the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal takes you further back into Nature (and in history). The National Park Service (a rare national asset of the federal government) maintains the old gravel towpath and allows access by foot and bicycle.
Interestingly, the locks and paths within D.C. always teemed with noisy, “active” crowds. But just 10 or 15 miles up-river in Maryland, it was another world, like stepping into the forests and river banks of two centuries ago.
Going out into Nature shouldn’t be like stopping at the convenience store to quickly “grab” some Nature, like we try to cram everything else into our lives of ceaseless motion. Go out and really spend some time in Nature. It’s closer than you think. And it has more benefits too.
Remember what they used to tell us at the railroad crossings, “Stop. Look. And Listen.”
1. Socio-economic inequalities in access to nature on public and private lands: A case study from Brisbane, Australia Landscape and Urban Planning October 2014; 130: 14–23