Green exercise can improve physical and mental health

Exercising outdoors has many benefits for your body and mind.

Two people walking outdoors in wintertime.
Photo: Pexels/Julia Larson.

Michigan State University Extension acknowledges that even simple physical activity like walking can help keep you healthy. Studies show that participating in regular physical activity reduces blood pressure, blood sugar levels and helps with maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, interacting with nature on a daily basis has been shown improve mental health by reducing levels of stress, anxiety and even improving symptoms of depression.

Green exercise, which is considered as any physical activity that takes place outside, has been shown to improve both physical and mental health. Activities can be:

  • Intentional, such as visiting a neighborhood garden or riding bike.
  • Incidental, such as interacting with people while walking to the grocery store or walking in the park.
  • Indirect, like looking at trees through a window or viewing pictures of nature scenes while moving.

Green exercise can include a variety of activities such as gardening, cycling, walking, flying kites, walking a pet, hiking local trails or participating in a neighborhood project like planting flowers.

In one study, children experienced outdoor teaching over regular intervals of one school day per week in the forest. Their outdoor learning program included chances to be physically active during free choice activities and through adult-guided planned activities. Compared to children in a regular school setting, children who were in the outdoor learning program showed higher levels of activity along with a decline in their cortisol response. Cortisol is a hormone released in the body in response to stress, which triggers the flight or fight response as part of our human survival mechanism. It is higher in the morning and lowest at night. When cortisol levels are lower, we are calmer. This reduction in cortisol levels is shown to have a positive response in stress reduction resulting in better mental health.

Another study on experiences of contact with nature in school education was shown to be beneficial in the well-being of the children, families, and teachers. Participants reported improved psycho-physical well-being and also improved connectedness to nature and pro-social behaviors like development of personal and social skills.

Researchers Barton and Pretty conducted a study to see how much green exercise is needed to improve mental health. They found that the greater the time spent doing green exercise, the greater the improvements in both self-esteem and mood. Those impacts were increased when there was a presence of water. However, they found that even brief times engaging in green exercise showed improvements in mental health.

If you are working on maintaining or improving your health by including physical activity, consider getting outside in a green environment as part of your routine to boost both your physical and mental health.

Michigan State University Extension also has many classes and resources to help you stay healthy physically and mentally. Walk with Ease is a self-directed program whereby you commit to walking 10-35 minutes at least three times per week for six weeks and improve your health and well-being. If you are interested in finding out more or registering for a class, please complete this online self-referral form

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