We know that being active is great for our mind and body. We know that being in and connecting with nature is good for you too. But what are the much lauded benefits of bring activity and nature together?
Being active. One of the very best preventions and antidotes to illness is exercise. It helps loose weight, boost mood and reduce risk of chronic disease. The benefits are too numerous to list here. But regular exercise is one of the most significant and easily influenced determinants of health. Regular exercise can be habit forming in a good way (those with addictive personalities may find this a more healthy addiction!), it releases feel good hormones (endorphins) and balances your neurotransmitters. Exercise can also be a bit monotonous and boring too! Especially if it is indoors.
The other, less well known, health aspect of exercise is that it can provide a means to enter a zone of thinking that is akin to mindfulness and meditation. This is called FLOW. This is where you become so focussed and engaged in something that all sense of time disappears, and you are left utterly in the present moment. It often involves a physical or creative challenge and is very different from calm mindful breathing. Flow states have their own physical and mental health benefits in their own right.
Being active outdoors. The outdoor environment is a place of infinitely varied sensory input – textures, sights, smells and sounds. Sensory stimulation is a form mental exercise and also method of accessing a more mindful and present state. Developing the ability to take notice might take practice but when you have mastered this then the outdoor environment is a place of rich sensory exchange. Its also a bit more interesting than exercising in a room too! Yes, it can be cold, wet, windy, hot, dark or just plain inconvenient – but all these things are stimulating your senses too. This adds to the health benefits of plain ‘vanilla’ exercise.
Being active in nature. Nature is organic. This means it is tactile. The surfaces are soft and uneven. Varied and interesting. Balance and judgement is required. The word we use is enhanced proprioception. It helps our a sense of balance. But it is much more. It places ourselves in our space and in our place. Exercising in nature gifts a great opportunity of enhancing this sixth sense. Organic surfaces also tend to be softer, less hard on the joints too. A forest trail is more forgiving than a tarmac road. The lack of uniform surfaces allows for micro-adjustment when placing your feet allowing for a differential strengthening of muscles and joints. Nature is organic. This means it is highly fractal too.
Fractals are geometric patterns repeated over scale to produce “self-similar” irregular shapes and surfaces that cannot be represented by classical (Euclidean) geometry (i.e. rectangles, cubes, and pyramids). Fractals are virtually absent in our man-made environment. But fractals are found everywhere in nature – in trees, leaves, snowflakes, waves, rocks, clouds…….Fractal geometry is at the foundation of all of creation which is natural (not made by humans). There is a growing body of evidence that viewing particular fractals can produce profoundly beneficial health effects in humans in terms of a sense of well-being and peace in the observer. In short, it is the fractals in nature which create stress reduction.
But the benefits of exercising in nature go even further. Research has shown that walking amongst trees improves memory and recall. Even deeply breathing the airs of the forest, rich in phytoncides, increases the strength and resilience of our immune system. This is over and above what can be achieved man-made environments.
Getting out and exercising in nature might be more inconvenient but there is a strong argument to suggest that its better for you and its benefits outweigh any drawbacks.
So, child of nature. Run free.