Movement is a fundamental aspect of life and a key component in human health. When we exercise, our bodies reward us on many different levels. But beyond the gym, when taken outdoors and into natural environments, movement offers significant advantages to transform the way we think, feel and live.
When researchers asked 184 competitive, recreational and adventure athletes who engage in outdoor exercise what their primary motivation was, the top response across the board was simply, “it makes me happy.”
This action, of performing an activity for its own sake because it brings you a deep sense of enjoyment and personal accomplishment, rather than doing it for the promise of some external reward, like improving your appearance or winning a title, is a form of intrinsic motivation. Research has shown, that people who tend to exercise outdoors are more likely to be intrinsically motivated than compared to those who engage in sport and gym-based exercise.
“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
- Philosopher Henry David Thoreau
It is well established that exercise has an almost instantaneous positive effect on our thoughts and feelings - boosting mood, self-esteem, memory and creativity. Succeeding the immediate benefits, in the 2-4 hours that follow exercise, heightened productivity, increased positive social interactions, and better behavioral decision making unfold. And even beyond the initial 24 hours, our ability to resist the mental and physical toll of stress remains bolstered.
The more we move, the more we are rewarded. When we commit to moving our bodies several times a week, cognition improves, brain aging slows, and we are relieved of depression. It is this truly elegant design, that sets us up to be the best versions of ourselves, extract the most out of life and experience happiness.
The explanation for why we are so generously rewarded for movement can both be attributed to evolution and the work of neurochemicals. During exercise, our body is flooded with brain chemicals, namely endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and anandamide, that make us feel euphoric and relieved of pain. Scientists believe this reward system evolved to motivate humans to run, a foraging behavior that was required for survival. Additionally, since movement is essential for our mental and physical health, these blissful rewards may exist solely to incentivize the behavior – survival of the fittest.
And while virtually all exercise is arguably beneficial, research suggests that when it comes to the mental health benefits, natural environments offer significant advantages over indoor ones. Specifically, exercising outdoors in nature is associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, increased energy and a decrease in tension, confusion, anger, and depression as compared to indoor exercise. Evidence even suggests that exercise may feel easier when performed in nature. This can be attributed to the shift in attention that occurs – away from internal feelings of fatigue and towards the environment at hand - resulting in reduced perceived exertion and an ability to sustain higher exercise intensities.
Finally, moving our bodies outdoors immersed in wild beauty amplifies our awe. When we are able to get outside and get lost in motion, we can more easily tap into the flow state and reach peak experiences. It is in these moments of total immersion, where we are able to expand of our consciousness, gain new perspectives and facilitate personal growth.
Movement in nature is undeniably one of the most powerful medicines available to us, a true virtuous cycle. When we enjoy something, we are driven to keep coming back to it, and in a world where nearly a third of all adults are physically inactive, coming back to movement is profoundly important.
In addition to today’s sedentary crisis, the climate and mental health crisis of our world have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Feelings of depression, anxiety and confusion continue to weigh down society and create new challenges each day. But with the extra dose of happiness nature provides, it may be just the motivation needed to stimulate individuals to move their bodies, enliven their minds and become more connected to nature. Because ultimately, when people are more connected to nature, greater concerns about the negative impacts of human behavior on the environment as well as a greater willingness to engage in sustainable actions are shown to transpire. And in this way, movement in nature transcends beyond the individual and becomes a movement towards positive change in the world.