Why you should care
The health benefits of green exercise are profound — and free.
It’s blissfully silent as I lace up for my morning run. Instead of Spotify, I’m tuned in to chirping birds and rustling leaves, Mother Nature’s popular playlist. Instead of the usual treadmill, I’m about to hit the tree-lined local trail for 6 miles of “green exercise.” After the stress of the holidays — and let’s face it, a world of bad news — I’m more than ready to reap eco-therapy’s rewards.
While logging miles on a treadmill or climbing hills on the elliptical are solid workouts, gyms and tracks have nothing on the great outdoors. Eco-therapy, which was named one of the top wellness trends for 2020, is a growing practice that improves mental and physical health through outdoor activities such as hiking, forest bathing and gardening. Given the increasing fragility of our planet’s health, everyone from doctors (who prescribe nature to cure depression and anxiety) to celebrities are embracing the eco-therapy movement — while they still can.
Take comedian Kevin Nealon. The Saturday Night Live veteran’s popular Hiking with Kevin YouTube channel features Nealon on LA-area hikes with guests ranging from Conan O’Brien to Lindsey Vonn. Of course, comedy and exercise are part of it, but things get surprisingly deep and personal. For example, during his hike, O’Brien talked about his longtime struggle with anxiety. Nealon attributes this openness to hiking’s instilled sense of freedom, according to an interview with Outside magazine. In these freeing, unscripted moments, eco-therapy is undoubtedly at play.
True eco-therapy is led by a trained therapist, but regular exercisers can enjoy the mental and physical benefits of “green exercise” with swaps such as trail running instead of hitting the treadmill or hiking hills instead of using the stair climber.
Outdoor exercisers tend to work out for longer periods without even realizing it.
“Exercise alone helps with anxiety and depression, but moving your body in nature is another bump up,” says Dave Talamo, a seasoned eco-therapist who trains aspiring practitioners through his company, Wilderness Reflections. Talamo has noticed a spike in eco-therapy interest over the past several years, which he attributes to eco-anxiety from the state of our planet. Rediscovering humankind’s connectedness with the Earth can help people cope with eco-related stress, he says. “Just being in nature helps with stress, anxiety and productivity. When you add mindfulness to this, you get another synergistic bump.”
If this all feels a bit too “granola-y” for you, there’s science to back it up. Research shows that even small forays into the great outdoors can lower stress. Just five minutes surrounded by green space can improve mood and self-esteem. It can also yield better fitness results. In fact, outside air resistance is the equivalent to a treadmill grade of 1 percent, according to one study. Pair that with a constantly changing and often hilly terrain –– it not only improves endurance but “can enhance the strength of your connective tissue” to avoid injuries, according to the American Council on Exercise.
Even better? Outdoor exercisers tend to work out for longer periods without even realizing it, according to a study analyzing hikers versus treadmill walkers. The outdoor hikers felt less fatigued both mentally and physically, even though both groups did the same amount of exercise.
I’ve benefited from the latter, particularly while marathon training. A trail runner’s high blinds me to the fact that my outdoor workouts are more challenging. With a clear mind lost in the rhythm of heavy breath and my feet pounding the trail, I feel I could run outside for hours (and I do). On the treadmill? Upbeat music or the TV are a must to keep me soaring past three miles.
Of course, year-round eco-therapy is easy for California-based exercisers like Nealon. For the rest of us snow and subfreezing-winter strugglers, it’s tough to stick with green exercise all year. You can bundle up and brave the cold, or — thanks to a growing number of eco-centered retreats — you could book a flight to reconnect with Mother Nature in dozens of tropical locales, including Talamo’s Baja California Kayak Retreat or a yoga escape at the Hawaiian Sanctuary on the Big Island. Who’s coming?