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The Mental and Physical Benefits of Getting Outdoors

Learn about six ways to reconnect with nature and spice up your workout routine this summer.

By Jason P. Dinh
Jun 20, 2022 7:00 PMJun 20, 2022 7:01 PM
(Credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock)


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With summer arriving and COVID-19 cases rising, you might be looking for ways to exercise or relax outside. Scientists and physicians have long known that simply being outside can improve your physical and mental health. But according to Lisa Nisbet, a professor of psychology at Trent University in Canada, those of us who feel most connected with nature also reap the most benefits.

“Nature can boost people's mood, increase feelings of vitality, reduce the stress response, and help with those feelings of relaxation,” Nisbet says. “I think a lot of people underestimate how important it is for physical and mental health.” These benefits, which range from improved eyesight to decreased stress, are so impactful that some physicians have even started prescribing nature to treat patients.

Melissa Lem, a medical physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, is no stranger to translating the medicinal potential of the outdoors into practice. She directs PaRx, a BC Parks Foundation initiative in Canada that helps physicians improve patient outcomes by prescribing them nature. Because its benefits are so diverse, PaRx-partnered physicians can write out the prescription for virtually every condition.

For example, PaRx prescribes at least 20 minutes of nature per day — the critical dose needed for effective stress relief. To help patients reach this 20-minute mark, they receive a free Parks Canada pass to access over 80 sites including national parks, monuments and marine conservation areas. “We don't just want to prescribe nature to people. We also want to make it easier for them to access it," Lem says. “I think we have to consider access to nature human right.”

Luckily, the possibilities for outdoor exercise are endless. Here are six summer activities that will train your body and ease your mind.

1. Rowing

(Credit: Popartic/Shutterstock)

Nothing says summer like getting out on the water. Whether you’re paddling through a placid lake or rafting through whitewater rapids, rowing a boat can improve your physical and mental health. There’s a reason that CrossFitters rely on rowing for cardio – it’s a killer total body workout.

Rowing builds strength and endurance. To power the paddles, you must simultaneously pull with your upper body and push with your legs. This process drives your body into anaerobic respiration and can push your heart to 90 percent of its maximal heart rate.

Getting on the water can also improve your mental and emotional wellbeing. People who paddle, kayak or otherwise exercise on the water report being more relaxed, mindful and de-stressed.

2. Rock Climbing

(Credit: Antonio Olid/Shutterstock)

Rock climbing is booming in popularity among millennials, accelerated by the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo” and the debut of rock climbing in the 2020 Olympics. The activity is exactly what it sounds like: scaling a rock face outdoors, or artificial rock walls in an indoor gym. Climbers can strap on a harness and rope (called free climbing) or scale shorter rock faces without gear (bouldering).  

Climbing pumps up your heart rate, stimulates blood flow, improves flexibility, enhances balance, and strengthens your arms, legs and core. And besides working your body, it also exercises your mind; even before a climb, you must “read” the rock face and solve a 3D puzzle to determine how to reach the summit. Some climbers report that the skills they learn while rock climbing help them solve problems elsewhere in their lives.

In today’s heyday of indoor rock climbing, even urbanites can get in on the fun. Climbing gyms tend to be located in mid-sized and large cities, with more than 590 climbing facilities open in the U.S. as of 2021. According to the market research company IBISWorld, the indoor climbing industry is expected to grow by more than 8 percent in 2022.

3. Hiking

(Credit: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock)

Hiking is an affordable and relaxing way to reach your daily steps goal. Tromping through the woods has been linked to improved immune function, decreased blood pressure and decreased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes. Additionally, getting outside and reconnecting with nature has been shown to decrease stress and depression.

Investments into greenspaces increase access to hiking and greenery both in the wilderness and in cities. For example, in 2018, the U.S. National Park Service released a Healthy Parks Healthy People 5-year plan to push people into parks. The program’s chief, Diana Allen, believes that hiking in national parks can improve all facets of life.

“We take a holistic approach to health, recognizing that we're promoting people's physical, mental and spiritual health, social well-being and the health of the planet,” she says. “It's the interconnection of the health of people and the health of parks that we're upholding.”

Even cities are prioritizing walkable greenspaces like the Atlanta BeltLine or the New York High Line to encourage urbanites to get outdoors. Whether you’re next to public wilderness or overlooking New York City’s Central Park, try hopping on a trail to keep you and your Fitbit happy.

4. Gardening

(Credit: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock)

Gardening has widespread benefits for the body, providing moderate to vigorous physical activity, improving mental well-being and even supporting a healthy diet. The pastime can improve hand strength, relieve pain and improve overall physical health for older adults.

But tending to the land isn’t just for the elderly; kids can also benefit, especially in community gardens. For kids in at-risk neighborhoods, community gardening has proven to be a helpful tool for building relationships, connecting to the community and developing teamwork skills.

Community gardens also benefit the community as a whole, especially in low-income areas. They stabilize neighborhoods, grow the economy and improve health and recreational activity for neighbors. Bringing home a bag of fresh, hearty vegetables is just the cherry — or carrot — on top.

5. Scuba Diving

(Credit: Rostislav Ageev/Shutterstock)

Swimming, one of the best forms of aerobic exercise, improves your cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength. And unlike running, it’s easy on the joints; that means you can reap the benefits of aerobic exercise without the wear-and-tear on your knees and back.

Scuba divers, however, also carry heavy gear while swimming. Normal dive tanks weigh about 33 pounds, and divers often carry dive weights to control their buoyancy. In the same way that heavy backpacks burden hikers on overnight camping trips, dive gear pushes your strength more than a casual swim would.

Notably, scuba diving combines these physical benefits of swimming with mindful breathing practices. A UK-based study showed that the activity reduced anxiety, improved sleep and even alleviated the chronic pain for military veterans who were injured in combat. The researchers concluded that these mental health benefits stem from the deep focus and feeling of weightlessness that divers experience underwater.

6. Surfing

(Credit: Dane Gillett/Shutterstock)

Surfing is a fun and adventurous way to improve your endurance, strength and mental health. It’s a vigorous, full-body workout that can drive your heart rate to 85 percent of its maximal value.

Surfers use their core and upper body to jump into a standing position and their legs to balance while riding the wave; not to mention the constant paddling against powerful waves. Pilot studies of surfing therapy programs have shown that surfing can improve upper body strength, core strength and cardiovascular endurance, especially in children with disabilities.

Additionally, surfing can promote mental health and emotional well-being. Several studies have shown that surfing regularly for two to three months can enhance social development, relaxation and self-confidence. Participants in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning even reported that the activity improved relationships with their friends and their outlook on school.

Catch some waves if you get the chance — your body and mind will thank you later.

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