MARIKA SBOROS: How exercising in nature gives physical and mental wellbeing the green light
Doctors in some countries are prescribing activities in natural environments as complementary treatments for a range of illnesses
Summer’s here, the holiday silly season beckons, and with it comes golden opportunity for “green exercising”.
There’s nothing silly or even seasonal about green exercising — it is a term researchers use to refer to any physical activity that takes place outdoors.
Getting the most out of green exercising involves getting up close and personal with Mother Nature — it’s about much more than nipping outside for a brisk walk around the the neighbourhood, no matter how pretty and leafy.
It’s about putting space, literally and figuratively, between yourself and the stresses and strains of modern, 21st-century, concrete-jungle living and working.
That’s not to underestimate the benefits of structured fitness programmes indoors. And a walk or run in your nearest park is better than nothing. But for optimum green exercising, venture further afield to go walking, trail-running, hiking, canoeing, mountain-biking or swimming in clear streams, rivers or oceans.
It’s easier, of course, to summon up enthusiasm for green exercising when the sun is spreading its light and heat. Exercising in exquisite surroundings in the sunshine is an added incentive. This natural source of vitamin D — exposing skin to the sun’s rays (while taking care not to burn) — is an instant boost to for the mind and immune system.
Still, experts say that green exercising is not dependent on good weather. The Shetland area of Scotland is a beautiful part of a country not known for clement weather. Yet, National Health Service (NHS) Shetland has issued a directive to doctors to give “nature prescriptions” — a medical version of green exercising — to patients.
NHS Shetland told GPs to prescribe activities that include “bird-watching, rambling and beach walks in the Atlantic winds to help treat chronic and debilitating illnesses”.
Nature prescriptions are not intended to replace conventional medicine. They are adjuncts aimed at boosting health in body and mind with few negative side effects. The only real risks come from falling or doing something silly in natural surroundings.
Green exercising also helps to avoid “nature-deficit disorder”. American journalist Richard Louv coined the term in his book Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. He believes most people spend too little time in nature and that contributes to increased behavioural problems, especially among children.
Louv is also author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age and Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 ways to Enrich Your Family's Health & Happiness. He is co-founder and chair emeritus of the Children and Nature Network.
Research shows that activity levels among children have steadily declined in many countries, including SA. One way of getting them off the couch and away from small screens is for parents and GPs to prescribe nature.
Cape Town exercise scientist, biokineticist and Mr SA 2017 Dr Habib Noorbhai agrees. He has a holistic view of exercise, which he defines as “any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness”.
He says it is common knowledge that sitting or sedentary behaviour is “the new smoking”. In terms of health risks, physical inactivity is shown to be the fourth-leading risk factor for all-cause mortality, he adds.
It is also well-known that standing is better than sitting. “Inevitably, as human beings, we’ve been built to stand, move and lie down. We are not naturally designed to sit for prolonged periods,” Noorbhai says.
GPs and exercise medicine professionals have been increasing awareness and knowledge of physical activity, he says. The latest recommendations are a minimum of 150 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity activity a week. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Noorbhai says it can be done over a minimum of three days of 50 minutes or a minimum of five days of 30 minutes each.
He’s a big fan of walking as a “common type of activity that many underestimate and that can do wonders for health and lifestyle”. It strengthens the immune system, improves mood, digestion and pain control, reduces stress and controls blood pressure effectively.
Even just walking in nature has these benefits, Noorbhai says. “With mental health illness slowly on the rise, walking in nature appears to be a leading modality,” he adds.
“Performing any sort of activity in nature (instead of walking on a treadmill in closed doors or in urban areas) accentuates senses of smell, touch, sound and sight. This can potentially accelerate health benefits.”
His message is simple: “Walk, walk, walk; and walk in nature as often as possible, in conjunction with maintaining a healthy eating plan and eliminating sugar from your life.
“You can never walk or outrun a bad diet, but the evidence is there to show that walking in nature really does have many health benefits.”
As 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire said: “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”