Think about your last visit to nature. Was it to a forest trail? An urban park? Or was it alongside a waterway? Our research at the University of Limerick studying memory for physical activity would predict that you can recall in great detail this experience-the wind, the weather, the views, the echoes of nature-these all clearly resonate with us and provide us with robust memories of the experience. In contrast, your last gym session or exercise class, albeit enjoyable will only leave a fleeting memory. Our memories don’t lie in this case-their vividness is linked to the positive emotions and green exercise inundates us with an upsurge in elation, empathy and emotion. We will now explore why this happens and how it can benefit us.
What is green exercise?
‘Green exercise’ refers to physical activity in natural green space (blue exercise refers to activity in or beside water). It includes anything from walking in urban parks, jogging on trails and rambling in the countryside. In Ireland although two-thirds of us are now living in urban settings we have an abundance of parks in our midst. For example, 23% of Dublin is categorised as green space and while not all of this is readily accessible the Phoenix Park provides us with a green oasis totalling 707 hectares. BlueWays and Greenways provide an infrastructure which opens the door to outdoor activity from walking, biking to running, for example.
Why Go Green?
Exercising outdoors confers additional benefits beyond the equivalent gym-based activity. Air quality in parks and our countryside are typically bereft of the pollutants that we are exposed to running in cities or near traffic. Noise pollution is reduced in most parks and the sounds of nature offer an acoustic feast particularly in Spring time. We can connect with nature by interacting with it on our bouts of green exercise. This has the potential to amplify our positive mood response, to increase our empathy and attention. Interestingly, although viewing trees present complex visual stimuli we are primed to process this information effortlessly compared to images of our built environment.
Martin Rogan CEO of one Irelands leading charity in the sector, Mental Health Ireland (MHI) describes “green exercise as a giant step for individual well-being. Just one step into nature has the potential for long term benefits for our mental health and well-being. We are more likely to return to green exercise than any other form of physical activity. It’s also cheaper than gym-based activity and opens peoples’ eyes to nature and their environment.” The MHI promotion strategy – five ways to well-being includes being active and taking notice-and they advocate green exercise for all.
Let us return to your memory of your last nature experience. Your rich memories of nature activate many neural neighbourhoods -visual, auditory, motor cortices, for example. The effect of this is that these memories are long lasting and positively influence our motivation for our next bout of physical activity. Hence, green exercise is termed a sticky behaviour, once you go green you will stay going green.
Psychologists are increasingly clear why both gym-based and team sport activities have a high drop rate-It’s all about choice! The more an activity is prescribed the less control we have and this reduces the likelihood of us persisting at it. Green exercise offers us choices. We can choose our setting, park, field, forest. We can go it alone or make it a social activity. And because the effects are long lasting we can use it intermittently with other activities like going to fitness classes, the gym or playing sport.
It’s your choice. Go Green.
Recommended Best Practice
- Phones can provide you with a navigation tool (GPS) and you can take photos of your adventure.
- Activity levels in green exercise can initially be easy on the effort spectrum and when you feel comfortable you can ramp it up.
- Choose your setting as we have personal preferences for natural environments-for example some prefer open spaces to running under a canopy of trees.
- Environmental benefits of outdoor exercise are reduced exposure to pollutants, reduced carbon footprint from gym activity and increased awareness of our natural environment.
- Savouring or recalling your experience of nature can evoke the same positive emotions that you had on the hillside so you don’t even have to be in nature to feel its benefits.
Author Note: A version of this article was published on 18th Feb. 2018 in a Sunday Independent Supplement “Walk of Life” in association with Sport Ireland.
Dr Tadhg MacIntyre is a lecturer in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences (PESS) at the University of Limerick. Dr MacIntyre’s research interest applies the strength-based approach to investigating key questions in cognitive psychology and performance psychology. Dr MacIntyre leads the GO GREEN EX initiative at PESS and the Health Research Institute, University of Limerick. GO GREEN EX is a transdiciplinary research group engaged in research on human-nature interaction with respect to well-being, physical activity, well-being and mental health and the environment. The team includes PESS staff Prof Alan Donnelly, HoD Dr Giles Warrington, Dr Ciaran MacDonncha and Dr Matt Herring, researchers from more than a dozen institutions and stakeholders organizations including Mental Health Ireland, Psychological Society of Ireland, Clarisford Park, Clare and Limerick Local Sport Partnerships, Sport Ireland, WaterWays Ireland and the European Network of Outdoor Sports. You can contact Dr MacIntyre by email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter
Feature Image: (Left to Right): Dr. Andrew Rowe; Dr. Paul Van Der Westhuizen, and Cian Walsh (Top-), Aisling Frawley Dr. Owen Douglas (Ecohealth UCD), Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre with Senator Maire Devineat Merrion Square Park, Dublin.