There’s little doubt that one of the easiest and most convenient ways to exercise is to simply get outside your front door and walk. The benefits of walking are many and varied, and include improvements to everything from cardiovascular fitness to mental health. But does it matter where you walk? Can you walk on a treadmill in the gym? How about just walking up and down the stairs in your own house, especially on those days when you just can’t (or don’t want to) brave the weather, or do any more peopling than necessary.
While almost any form of exercise is better than none, especially for our physical health, when it comes to mental health there are definitely advantages to some types of exercise, over others. Studies show that walking in nature is particularly good for our mental health, and not just when it comes to fuzzy things like ‘feeling happier’, but also when it comes to more measurable things, like working memory.
One study tested the memory of a group of students, and then sent half of them on a 2.8-mile walk in nature, around an arboretum. The other half were sent on a 2.8-mile walk in the city. After the walks, the memory tests were repeated. The people who had walked in nature performed significantly better in their second test, while those who had walked in the city showed no significant difference in memory skills.
There is evidence, then, that the idea of getting out in nature to clear our heads is not just a nice idea. It can really work. And the potential benefits that a nature walk has on our mental health go beyond simply ‘feeling better’ and actually impact cognitive function. What’s more, it may be that there are even more benefits to certain kinds of nature walks. Performance psychologist Nollaig O’Sullivan suggests that the greatest benefits come from combining green and blue exercise. That’s exercise in green spaces but near blue water, whether that’s walking along a river through a forest, or along a cliff top near a beach.
It makes sense that being in nature lifts our spirits. Natural settings are quieter and calmer than big city settings, and for most of us, more pleasing on the eye. But our attraction to nature, and happiness when surrounded by it, may go deeper than that. The ‘biophilia hypotheses’ suggests that humans’ tendency to seek out natural settings is evolutionary in essence. We have a connection to nature that goes back to our ancestors, who lived and thrived in nature long before cities or modern day technologies existed. In his book, Biophilia, Edward O Wilson argues that our responses to nature are part of a natural affinity for life, that effectively binds us to all other living things.
There’s an argument that water is also something that attracts us at a deep and primal level. Marine biologist and wild water advocate, Dr. Wallace J Nichols, is the author of the bestselling book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Nichols claims that being near water (and indeed on it, in it, or under it) can help with everything from stress and anxiety, to sleep problems and grief.
Whether or not you believe in these deep primal instincts, I challenge you to commit to a blue and green exercise challenge. It’s not hard. Every day for a month try and get blue, green or blue and green exercise. There are a few different ways to do that:
· Find a park with a river, stream, lake, or duck pond
· Go to the beach if you live near one
· Swim (a public pool is fine)
· Spend time in your garden if you have one
I appreciate that I’m lucky. I live in a small town between the sea and the forest. The forest has streams and rivers, and within a stone’s throw of my house is a green area with what is either a very large duck pond or a very small lake, depending which local character you talk to. It may be harder for you, but see what you can do. Meet me back here in a month (or any other time) and post your results in the comments. And for the purposes of this somewhat fuzzy experiment, it’s fine if you don’t do any cognitive tests. The aim is to feel better, plain and simple.