Focus on Fitness: Moving in Nature
By Kayli Anderson, MS, RDN, DipACLM, ACSM-EP
Vol. 25 No. 5 P. 46
Help clients achieve better health in the great outdoors.
Clients may know that exercise is good for them, and most will agree that spending time enjoying nature outdoors also has its benefits. But if they combine the two (exercise and nature) by taking in the sights while hiking or breathing in the aroma of fresh soil while planting a garden, will it lead to better overall health?
In this article, Today’s Dietitian explores how helping clients take their exercise to the great outdoors can yield health benefits that span from reduced blood pressure to better sleep.
Why Clients Need to Move More
It’s important to remind clients that physical activity is a key part of a healthful lifestyle. Regular exercise reduces the risk of depression and anxiety, increases longevity, strengthens bones and muscles, and helps prevent CVD, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.1 The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans says adults should get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two sessions of strength-based activity each week.1 However, less than 25% of people meet these recommendations. Dietitians need to help engage and motivate clients to make movement a regular part of their lives, and nature can be a powerful asset to do just that.
Health Benefits of ‘Vitamin N’
Spending time in nature, or getting what’s coined “vitamin N,” comes with its own array of benefits, whether or not individuals are physically active. In fact, many health care providers are prescribing time outdoors thanks to park prescription programs such as ParkRx America.2 Spending time in nature has been associated with reduced stress, improved mood and memory, increased immunity, decreased inflammation, and anticancer effects.3 Forest bathing, the Japanese practice known as Shinrinyoku, has been found to increase natural killer cell activity, suggesting that a leisurely trip to the forest may have cancer prevention benefits.4 Clients don’t have to immerse themselves in a desolate forest to experience the benefits of vitamin N. Studies show that exposure to green spaces—such as parks, public gardens, sports fields, and neighborhoods with trees—may be protective against poor mental health, CVD, and mortality.5 Another bonus? Exposure to green spaces is associated with increased physical activity.5
Combining Exercise and the Outdoors
So, what will happen when clients put these two health practices together? Here are some of the benefits they may experience while moving in nature.
Reduction in Blood Pressure
Walking or jogging along a quiet nature trail or hiking through a forest while viewing the trees, flowers, and other greenery can lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as heart rate, compared with the same activities performed in urban environments. These benefits may be why perceived exertion is lower when exercising in nature compared with other environments.6
More Challenging Workouts
Research shows outdoor movement may lead to a more strenuous workout without individuals realizing it. In one study, participants were allowed to select their indoor and outdoor walking speed. The majority of participants selected faster speeds outdoors than they did indoors. Why? Perhaps because most people report a lower rate of perceived exertion when exercising outside.6 In other words, nature may make exercise feel easier. Plus, natural environments present unique challenges, including frequent changes in elevation, and varied terrain, resulting in a more vigorous workout compared with a treadmill or other stationary gym equipment.
Enhanced Mental Wellbeing
Another reason to encourage clients to take their exercise outdoors is the potential mental benefits. When compared with indoor exercise, exercising in nature is associated with decreased tension, anger, and depression and increased feelings of revitalization and positive engagement.7
Improved Body Image and Self-Esteem
An unexpected benefit of outdoor physical activity is increased self-esteem. Studies show that outdoor movement boosts self-esteem more than indoor movement, with the greatest effects seen in younger populations and those with existing mental health conditions.8 The expansive and peaceful nature of the outdoors also may help clients avoid comparing themselves with other exercisers in gym or fitness class settings.
Better Synchronized Circadian Rhythm
Research has found that exercising outdoors also may help synchronize circadian rhythm. In a study that looked at airline crewmembers, outdoor exercise was more effective for resynchronizing their circadian rhythms compared with indoor activities.9 Moreover, exposure to natural light during the day can help synchronize the biological clock, boost daytime energy, and improve sleep.10
Get a Dose of Vitamin D
Since few foods contain vitamin D, participating in daily movement outdoors is a great way for clients to get this crucial nutrient. To get adequate vitamin D, it’s recommended to spend five to 30 minutes outdoors between 10 am and 4 pm a few times per week and get sun exposure on major parts of the body, such as the legs, arms, and face. Clients will be glad to know that a short afternoon walk does triple duty, combining the benefits of movement, being outdoors, and soaking up vitamin D.
Gym memberships and high-priced exercise equipment may be a real barrier for some clients to begin an exercise regimen. However, getting outdoors is free. All they need is proper clothing and a safe outdoor space to engage in daily physical activity. Hiking and biking trails can be used at no cost, and it isn’t uncommon to see people using park benches and stairs for strength and cardio workouts or rolling out their yoga mats under a park pavilion.
Convinced that adding vitamin N to your recommendation list will be beneficial to clients? Here are a few ways to help them get started with moving their physical activity to the great outdoors.
Help Them Choose a Location They’ll Enjoy
The first step to taking advantage of what nature has to offer is deciding on a location. Help clients find safe spaces that are easily accessible. If they don’t live near forest areas or hiking trails, other options include public parks, sports fields, and neighborhoods with sidewalks and ample foliage. They also can exercise in outdoor swimming pools, lakes, and oceans. Remember, the best outdoor space is one that’s convenient, and that they look forward to visiting.
Offer a Variety of Nature Activities
Help clients identify activities they’ll look forward to doing regularly. Ideas include walking, running, swimming, gardening, hiking, biking, bird watching, foraging, skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, roller skating, and outdoor organized sports.
Encourage Them to Be Prepared
Being equipped with certain essentials will make clients’ outdoor endeavors more fun. Ensure they wear the proper clothing for the weather conditions and terrain. They also may want to wear sunscreen and bring bug spray or a water bottle. Give clients ideas for healthful, portable snacks to fuel their outdoor adventures. Trail mix, apples, bananas, roasted chickpeas, and fresh veggie strips are all great options.
Suggest They Engage All Five Senses
To benefit from nature’s gifts, encourage clients to be present in the moment and take in their surroundings. Recommend they focus on all five senses during an outing. What did they see, smell, touch, hear, and maybe taste? Paying attention to all five senses will help them immerse themselves in the experience and reap the most health benefits.
Make It a Family or Group Activity
Exploring nature in solitude can be wonderful, but enjoying it with others has benefits of its own. Suggest clients plan a weekly family outing to an outdoor space. Or, help them find groups who recreate outdoors, such as sports teams, bird watchers, or bikers. The social connection will add an additional boost to their mood and well-being.
— Kayli Anderson, MS, RDN, DipACLM, ACSM-EP, is the founder of the women’s health website Plant-Based Mavens (plantbasedmavens.com) and coauthor of the lifestyle medicine textbook Improving Women’s Health Across the Lifespan.
1. United States Department of Agriculture; Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf. Published December 2020.
2. Healthy parks healthy people: Bay Area. Parkrx website. https://www.parkrx.org. Accessed January 6, 2023.
3. Nature's benefits. Nature Connection Guide website. https://natureconnectionguide.com/natures-benefits. Published August 17, 2022. Accessed January 6, 2023.
4. Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010;15(1):9-17.
5. James P, Banay RF, Hart JE, Laden F. A review of the health benefits of greenness. Curr Epidemiol Rep. 2015;2(2):131-142.
6. Gladwell VF, Brown DK, Wood C, Sandercock GR, Barton JL. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med. 2013;2(1):3.
7. Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45(5):1761-1772.
8. Barton J, Pretty J. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environ Sci Technol. 2010;44(10):3947-3955.
9. Shiota M, Sudou M, Ohshima M. Using outdoor exercise to decrease jet lag in airline crewmembers. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1996;67(12):1155-1160.10. Burns AC, Saxena R, Vetter C, Phillips AJK, Lane JM, Cain SW. Time spent in outdoor light is associated with mood, sleep, and circadian rhythm-related outcomes: a cross-sectional and longitudinal study in over 400,000 UK Biobank participants. J Affect Disord. 2021;295:347-352.