Elevate Mental Health with Green Exercise

Green Exercise Elevates Mental Health

5-minute read

Leprechauns and rainbows may spark the imagination, but nature’s beauty captivates the senses. Simply enjoying greenery and scenery — from shamrocks to lush pine forests and sparkling blue lakes — is renewing and refreshing, but the rewards go much deeper. Being in natural environments — taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations — lifts spirits and unleashes a cascade of well-being effects on St. Patrick’s Day and every day. Learn how being active outdoors improves mental health and happiness… and how to help your population grab this priceless pot o’gold.

Happier, Sharper Brains

Do you know that feeling when you’re outside around trees, a garden, or at the ocean… as if a weight is suddenly off your shoulders? Time spent in nature actually elevates mood and settles the monkey mind. The American Psychological Association notes a wide range of mental/emotional results from stepping out into natural surroundings:

  • Heightened attention and ability to focus
  • More happiness and perceived well-being
  • Increased positive emotions and empathy
  • Better self-esteem, mood, and memory
  • Less stress and more resilience.

Depression and anxiety have escalated during the pandemic. Because exercise and time in nature both can offer relief — and prevention — of symptoms, medical experts recommend making them daily habits. Just a quick walk outside near trees can work wonders for your state of mind.

Natural elements in the workplace enhance job satisfaction and performance in addition to mental health:

  • Settings that include gardens, walking paths, reflecting ponds, trees, and windows overlooking natural areas let employees access the powers of green space — helping them mitigate stress and perform at their best
  • Functional imaging scans show that the brain responds differently to natural, tranquil scenery — stimulating connections; in contrast, urban scenery disrupts these connections
  • Office workers with a view of trees report significantly less job stress and higher job satisfaction — even after controlling for age, gender, and job category.

At least 2 hours/week in nature is recommended for health and well-being, but more is even better. If going to a park or trail isn’t possible, just viewing awe-inspiring images or videos of natural places is beneficial— but getting out to experience them with all senses works best.

Reinvigorating With Green Exercise

Being physically active outdoors around trees, plants, and bodies of water brings substantial dividends — above and beyond being active indoors — like these examples:

  • Compared to indoor walking, outdoor walking creates greater improvements in mood, revitalization, positive engagement, enjoyment, and intent to exercise in the future
  • Outdoor exercisers rate their sessions as more restorative compared to those who work out indoors — and this predicts a higher frequency of physical activity
  • Postmenopausal women report less worry/frustration when walking outdoors and feel the exercise is more enjoyable than walking indoors.

Revitalizing and restorative? More motivation? Increased enjoyment? Check. Green exercise offers all these and more — in addition to mental/emotional improvement.

Outdoor activity’s popularity has risen dramatically as people cope with pandemic life. A 2020 Harris poll returned evidence of the shift:

  • 40% more Americans walk now compared to before the COVID crisis
  • 65% have been looking for safe outdoor activities to do
  • Another 65% report getting out of the house as much as possible
  • 69% say they feel added appreciation/awareness when outside.

Bicycling, among other fresh-air activities, skyrocketed in 2020. Outside magazine reports  (toilet paper shortages aside) bicycles are hard to find and have been selling out and backordered in many regions.

Supporting Active Outdoor Recreation

All signs point toward these trends continuing, and that’s good news. Green exercise provides the best that physical activity plus nature have to offer: the joy of movement with the health benefits and brain-nourishing power of nature.

How can you help those you serve integrate this life-enriching combination into their lifestyles? To spark your thinking, consider these ideas:

  • Link to websites that offer easy ways to find outdoor areas, such as the National Park Service or Alltrails.com
  • Include national and local park passes in wellness program prize drawings
  • Suggest forest bathing as a simple way to interact with nature and soothe stress
  • Offer discounted group tickets for seasonal outdoor recreation opportunities year-round
  • Designate an outdoor rec advisory group to plan hiking, kayaking, or snow sport events
  • Include engaging messages/images about green exercise and upcoming events in program communications
  • Promote walking 1:1 meetings outside
  • Bring the outdoors in; even posters, plants, and images of beautiful mountains, waterfalls, and foliage reduce stress and foster pleasant emotions
  • Ask your EAP to promote active time in nature, especially for those requesting help with mental/emotional concerns.
A Call to (Outdoor) Action

It’s hard to overstate the vital role both nature and physical activity play in health-related quality of life. For workplace wellness managers, encouraging both — together — is a way to enhance life and work.

Recommended Reading

In Pandemic, People Are Turning to Nature… Especially Women — University of Vermont (2020)

More Time In NatureScientific American (2020)

Nature Can Improve Mental Health During Pandemic  — Verywell Mind (2020)


Beth ShepardBeth Shepard
Well-being consultant, educator, writer |National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach |Certified Lifestyle Medicine Coach|ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist |25+ years in wellness |Jazz enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.