You probably know that exercise is good for your physical health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function and greater feelings of wellbeing. In fact, research shows that exercise is an effective way to prevent and treat depression.
Depression has been in the news recently following the release of new guidelines for the screening for depression in all adults, especially women during and after pregnancy. Considering that depression affects almost 15 million American adults and is a leading cause of disability, diagnosing and treating depression should be a priority. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of common depression treatments, including antidepressant medication, is questionable.
It turns out that exercise is an effective, if underused, strategy to treat depression. Exercise itself has been shown to be as effective as some medications for reducing depression symptoms. More commonly, exercise is used in addition to other treatment strategies, including antidepressant medication, increasing the effectiveness of those therapies. One study showed that exercise can reduce depression symptoms after just 10 days, even before many medications are effective.
It appears that both aerobic and resistance training are beneficial. It is also possible that social support experienced through group exercise is important, too. Additionally, where the exercise is conducted matters and exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial.
Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. In one study, people who walked in a quiet, tree-lined area had greater improvement in mood – they felt happier – than those who walked along a busy street in an urban area. The researchers also completed brain scans to determine that the difference in mood was related to changes in blood flow in the brain. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children.
The good news is that almost any indoor exercise can be moved outdoors. While walking, running and cycling are most obvious, resistance training exercises using body weight and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. Yoga and aerobics classes in the park are also great ways to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.
Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity are meaningful. It also means that going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances can have positive effects. At home, taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors.
Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier. So, get outside and get active!