COVID has brought many changes into our lives–most of them frightening, sad, isolating, and overwhelming, but the virus has also pushed us to spend more time outdoors. We have learned that social gatherings are relatively safer when they occur outdoors. We know that walking and spending time outside can help with feelings of isolation and depression connected to this pandemic. Maybe, a hidden benefit of this virus is to get us back into the outdoors where many health benefits exist.
We all know how good it feels to be outside in fresh air, but are there actual measurable health benefits we can achieve for our environment. Scientists all around the world have begun to study the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of what is now being called “vitamin G” or green exercise. This refers to exercising in the environment by taking short walks, gardening, running, or engaging in more extensive cardiovascular workouts outside. Many people already embrace the importance of protecting our environment and the value of exercise, it is only recently that we have begun to appreciate and understand the benefit of combining the two.
Most of us accept the fact that daily exercise is important, but what difference does it make where we exercise? First, scientists have proven that the air indoors is two times more polluted than the air outdoors. Second, exercising indoors often exposes individuals to many distractions (e.g., laundry, email, dishes, treadmill covered with clothes, etc.) which tends to undermine motivation and commitment to an exercise plan. Studies have found that when we are outdoors our minds are more relaxed and our bodies tend to breathe more efficiently. Nature brings about a certain peaceful atmosphere that makes exercising a pleasant and desired experience with minimal distractions. Moreover, the benefits tend to be realized fairly quickly within the first several minutes.
Research/Benefits of Vitamin “G”–
1. Exercise Enhancement: Recent research has shown that exercising outdoors is associated with more efficient oxygen consumption, allowing for better endurance training for athletes or simply improving exercise efficiencies. Studies have also revealed better endurance and stamina while exercising on a treadmill outside compared with those who exercised indoors.
British researchers from the University of Essex reviewed research from 10 prior studies involving 1,252 people and they concluded that even short periods of green exercise, as little as five minutes, were enough to make a positive difference in physical energy and mental well-being. In addition, motivation and commitment to an exercise plan were significantly greater for those who exercise in green space compared to those who exercised indoors.
2. Stress Management: In a Japanese study published earlier this year in the journal Public Health found scientific evidence of the mental and physical effects of activities performed in green space. The study found measurable benefits to the nervous system with notably reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of subjects when they performed activities in green space compared to the indoors.
Simply bringing nature into view or inside can also have a significant effect. In a study measuring psychophysiological stress through electromyography (EMG), electroencephalography (EEG), blood volume pulse (BVP), and state anxiety indicators, those who had a view of the outdoors from their office window were less physiologically stressed than those without a window. Similarly, research conducted in a hospital setting revealed that patients who had a view of the outdoors or had plants in their hospital rooms tended to recover faster and experienced less pain compared to those with no plant material or window.
3. Improved Mental Health: Exercise in general is beneficial to mental health. It decreases stress hormones and increases endorphins, which are the “feel good” chemicals naturally occurring in the brain. Moreover, exercise releases tension and physical stress in the body and sustains cardiovascular health. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter chemical in the brain thought to contribute to depression and anxiety symptoms when deficient, is also positively affected by exercise. Many individuals who exercise regularly report a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Recent research has shown that these mental health benefits are significantly enhanced when exercise occurs in green space.
The added benefit to exercising near water is significant with greater levels of relaxation; meditation and enhanced self-esteem have been reported. Further, being in green space exposes individuals to sunshine which has long been known to improve mood by affecting the chemistry of the brain. Growing evidence from researchers in the United States, Scandinavia, and Britain has shown that engaging in physical activities in green space reduces stress, improves depression, manages anger, and contributes to an overall sense of well-being.
4 Cognitive Enhancements: Access to green areas appears to increase sensory and motor skills in both adults and children. Prolong exposure also has been shown to reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorders.
During the course of a normal day, we are bombarded with multiple distractors and stimulants that our mind has to forcibly push from awareness. In nature, the inhibitory centers of the brain do not have to work as hard to push out distractors rather the mind can take in the ever-changing stimuli in nature that create harmony and relaxation in the mind.
How can we begin to increase our Vitamin G?
- With winter approaching, many people are fearful of how they will cope with the confinement of the virus coupled with the weather changes. While winter presents many challenges to the beginning or sustaining of green exercise, planning ahead may make all the difference. Prepare and commit to a plan to walk outside even for 5 to 10 minutes particularly when the sun is shining, try to perform your indoor exercises near a window to view the outdoors and incorporate live plant materials into your work out space
- Adopt green prescriptions for your company or yourself by “prescribing” time outdoors, bringing nature into the building, etc. Remember, a more emotionally stable and physically healthier individual/employee costs the company less in healthcare costs, poor productivity, and lost time from work.
- Pay attention to the design of buildings and homes to allow maximum views and indoor gardens—even the simple addition of plant materials can yield big benefits.
- Purchase a membership to wildlife organizations—set a schedule to visit.
- Utilize the park system to walk or simply sit in your car to take in the green space and sunshine.
- Develop healthy walking paths at home or the office.
- Remove all barriers to getting outside. Make it a part of your routine that you do as an automatic, habitual part of your day.
- Remind yourself that keeping your immune system healthy is critical as we move into cold and flu season during a pandemic. Activities in green space is an important component to staying healthy.
- THINK GREEN AND STAY HEALTHY
I am a Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Clinical Supervisor (LICDC-CS) and I am developing a workshop on using nature to assist clients in the recovery process from substance addiction. I am aware of the research cited in your article on Vitamin G but was wondering if you have come across anything that pertains directly to addiction recovery. Programs like Outward Bound have been around for years but my goal is to help administrators and clinicians working with poverty-level, urban populations recognize the benefits of exposing their clients to nature through artwork, therapeutic gardens, field trips to local green spaces, etc.
Any input you can give would be greatly appreciated.