“We need to consciously become more aware of being present and “in the moment”
By Nancy J. Pinney
The year 2020 certainly has been an unprecedented one for the history books. Our lives became a paradox of the whole world changing daily while our individual lives were caught in this stagnant state. Life suddenly became a mental “head game”! Many people didn’t realize before 2020 that the health of our bodies are our most important possessions. Moving forward, let’s hope that everyone will recognize the importance of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. One thing that did not change was the freedom to exercise, breathe the fresh air outside, and all the benefits from these two simple acts.
We’re all given just one body. One body to care for, and one body to live life. We just assume that it will carry us through the years till our death. What many forget is that our bodies need care and maintenance to keep it going. For this, some begin to exercise to help maintain their physical well-being. The physical activity recommendations for Americans say that we all should get at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity each week. This will benefit our physical bodies in many ways. But exercise affects more than just the physical. Physical exercise can also benefit our whole-being in the mental, emotional, and spiritual realms.
A very large 2018 cross-sectional study of 1.2 million people in the U.S. from 2011 to 2015 looked at exercise and mental health. It was concluded that “Individuals who exercised had about 1.5 (about 43%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise.” In this same study, researchers found that exercising in groups and practicing mindful exercises such as yoga and tai chi helped reduce the mental health burden, depression, and enhance the resilience to stress. Often, we go through our day not even thinking about what we are doing each moment. We just automatically act upon what we need to do. All the while, stress builds. We eventually get into a routine but end up in a rut. It would be better to train ourselves to become deliberate with our movements and actions. We need to consciously become more aware of being present and “in the moment”. A 2017 review article in the Maturitas Journal, stated that, “The general outcome from research indicates that exercise can bring about many physiological changes which result in an improvement in mood state, self-esteem and lower stress and anxiety levels. It is even suggested that physical activity can enhance mental wellbeing as equally as psychotherapy.” Imagine that the exercise that is good for our physical bodies could also be beneficial for our mental and emotional health. The study went on to say that “it is clear that exercise improves mental well-being and is a viable preventative or adjunct treatment option for improved mental health outcomes.” It seems that we could help prevent mental health issues before they become a problem.
Let’s take this one step further. This year, what used to be thought of as “old” became new again. We began to play board games, do puzzles, and go to drive-in movies. Let’s go back to our childhood when playing outside was all we wanted to do. Leaving the house in the morning after breakfast, running around the neighborhood from yard to yard, and not going home till we were all called in for dinner. We always got our exercise. We felt a sense of freedom and didn’t have any worries or concerns. There have been numerous studies across many fields of research that support the theory that exercising outdoors can be beneficial for your mental health.
In the Applied Psychology Journal, a 2014 study was completed to determine if repeated contact with nature during physical activity could benefit us. The study concluded that “nature provides an added value to the known benefits of physical activity. Repeated exercise in nature is, in particular, connected to better emotional well‐being.” Let’s take a moment to examine some additional benefits from exercising outdoors. We can easily save some money in gym memberships. There are numerous body-weight exercises and exercises that require very little equipment needed to help us maintain our physical health. When we choose to exercise outdoors, we can change our view and environment. We can gain a fresh perspective each day. It can also provide more challenging workouts when we need to adapt to new environments and changing terrain. Such exercises also keep our minds more alert and aware of our surroundings. This influences cognitive and mental well-being. Exercising outside also gives us a free daily dose of Vitamin-D we need to help keep our bones healthy and strong while preserving normal nerve and function of our immune system. A 2013 study found that “Outdoor natural environments may provide some of the best all-round health benefits by increasing physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion, altering physiological functioning including stress reduction, restoring mental fatigue, and improving mood and self-esteem and perceived health. Thus, exercise within green spaces and the great outdoors may be a useful natural medicine to address health challenges facing developed countries.”
Many companies, organizations, and governmental agencies have been building areas in their communities. They have developed programs to help motivate people to be more active. In natural outdoor environments Green Gyms and Blue Gyms have been developed. These are locations in parks or natural waterway areas where the community can go to exercise in a safe outdoor environment. Originally published 2011, researchers completed a systemic review asking if physical activities outdoors have a greater effect on physical and mental well-being. They discovered that “Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy. Participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date.” This study showed how beneficial the outdoors could be to people who want to reconnect with nature through physical exercise.
Let’s get back to the basics of our childhood. Let’s take our exercise back in natural outdoor environments. The benefits of exercise go beyond the physical. They extend into our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Allow yourself to be that child again. Give yourself the gift you used to cherish. Free yourself of the walls around you. Leave your worries at the door. Head outside to a beautiful, rich, natural environment. Breathe in the fresh air. Once again, allow this to become your gymnasium for your own physical and mental fitness.
Chekroud, S. R., Gueorguieva, R., Zheutlin, A. B., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H. M., Krystal, J. H., & Chekroud, A. M. (2018). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1· 2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(9), 739-746.
Gladwell, V. F., Brown, D. K., Wood, C., Sandercock, G. R., & Barton, J. L. (2013). The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme physiology & medicine, 2(1), 1-7.
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.
Pasanen, T. P., Tyrväinen, L., & Korpela, K. M. (2014). The relationship between perceived health and physical activity indoors, outdoors in-built environments, and outdoors in nature. Applied psychology: Health and Well‐being, 6(3), 324-346.
Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M. H. (2011). 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. Environmental science & technology, 45(5), 1761-1772.