Outdoor exercise can benefit your brain and boost your energy levels, which can help change your outlook on life, improve the recovery process, and enhance your overall well-being.
Most people know that exercise strengthens the body, increases energy levels, and reduces the risk of disease, but working out in the great outdoors can be equally beneficial for the brain. People who exercise outdoors consistently have an increased sense of well-being. They have more energy during the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, concentrate better, and feel more relaxed. That’s because regularly moving the body positively affects the brain, which controls how well you think, feel, move, and recover from addictive substances.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits of exercise. Even modest amounts of outdoor physical activity can help strengthen the brain. Regardless of your age and current fitness level, any type of outdoor exercise can benefit your brain and boost your energy levels, which can help change your outlook on life, improve the recovery process, and enhance your overall well-being.
Benefits of Outdoor Exercise
Even though all forms of exercise can benefit the brain and body, there are some particular benefits associated with exercising outdoors. Some of the most common advantages of alfresco physical fitness include:
- A free dose of vitamin D. Exercising outdoors is a great way to get vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D increases energy and supports immune, brain, heart, and nervous system health.
- No membership fees. Most gyms or physical fitness centers come with a fee. The great outdoors, on the other hand, is free. You don’t have to purchase any special equipment to exercise outdoors. Just be sure to bring a bottle of water to stay hydrated.
- Cleaner air. This may come as a surprise, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air can contain more pollutants than outdoor air in metropolitan areas and large cities.
- A playful environment. Exercising in a gym or designated fitness center can feel like a chore. Being outside while you exercise can make physical fitness feel less like a chore and like more play, leisure, and recreation.
In addition to these benefits, engaging in outdoor physical fitness activities can also benefit the brain.
Exercise and the Brain
When you exercise, you feel good, your energy levels increase, and your immune system improves. But studies show that this isn’t the only way exercise changes the brain. Scientists have discovered that exercise also:
- Increases brain plasticity. Aerobic exercises increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the growth of neurons. Increased levels of BDNF act like a fertilizer for the brain, creating neurons that stimulate new neural connections in the brain. These connections help increase brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to change, shift, modify and re-wire itself. Brain plasticity allows the brain to change for the better. Thanks to brain plasticity, you can strengthen your memory, improve concentration, learn new skills, manage stress better, heal from trauma more effectively, and enhance cognitive skills.
- Naturally increases the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that work like messengers, allowing cells to communicate with one another. When you exercise, the brain immediately releases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. While norepinephrine helps keep blood pumping from the heart, serotonin helps improve cognitive function and learning. This helps clear your mind, which allows you to focus more and concentrate better. Dopamine helps you feel well, which motivates you to continue exercising. Exercise, in turn, keeps the brain sharp and high-performing.
- Strengthens the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. By increasing grey matter in these areas of the brain, exercise helps these brain regions work more effectively. While a strengthened hippocampus helps you better regulate emotions, the prefrontal cortex helps you solve complex problems and make logical decisions.
Outdoor exercise also referred to as “al fresco physical fitness” or “green exercise,” can be especially beneficial for the recovery process.
How Outdoor Exercise Benefits Addiction Recovery
Research shows that outdoor exercise has more psychological benefits than indoor exercise. Some studies suggest that just 5 minutes of green exercise benefits mental health. Negative ions found in nature counteract fatigue-causing positive ions that come from staring at computers and screens. Negative ions also put your senses in a “feel good” mode, which promotes:
- Better sleep
- Greater happiness
- Improved mental health
- Less anxiety and depression
In addition to making you feel better, these exercise benefits also aid addiction recovery. Exercising outdoors can help you overcome drugs and alcohol by:
Stress can trigger addictive habits. When you exercise, the brain releases norepinephrine, which helps reverse the damage stress does to your brain. Norepinephrine also helps boost your mood and improve cognitive function. Feeling upbeat can help you stay motivated during the recovery process. Being able to manage stress and learn new skills can help increase the effectiveness of behavioral therapy.
Exercising in nature can significantly reduce stress levels. During a study conducted in Japan, researchers discovered that exercising outside even for a short amount of time can reduce cortisol levels. High levels of cortisol can increase your blood pressure and make you feel anxious, depressed, and weak. By reducing stress, exercising outside can help you stay focused on your recovery.
Consistent exercise can easily boost your self-esteem. Losing weight, toning your body, building muscle, and improving your physical endurance can help you realize that you can, in fact, change your life. Exercising outside can boost your self-esteem even further. Research shows that spending just 5 minutes a day outside can help improve self-esteem. Walking, hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, and gardening can also help boost your self-efficacy, or the belief in your own ability to control your behaviors, emotions, and motivations. Moving your body in ways you haven’t experienced before or haven’t done in a while can remind you of just how capable you are. Doing this outside can help combine that self-efficacy with a dose of vitamin D, which can help combat brain fog and boost your mood.
Making the Brain More Sensitive to Natural Sources of Joy
Abusing addictive substances lowers natural dopamine levels in the brain. This often leads to depression, isolation, lack of motivation, and an inability to enjoy ordinary pleasures. Exercise can combat these feelings. Exercise awakens the brain’s reward system by activating the brain’s dopamine receptors. In fact, an 8-week exercise regimen can permanently increase the dopamine receptors in your brain, making you more responsive to natural sources of joy. Being able to experience everyday sources of joy makes you less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a source of pleasure.
Helping You Live A Thriving, Recovered, Substance-Free Life
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we know that addiction can wreak havoc on the brain. We also know that healthy experiences and lifestyle changes such as outdoor exercise can help the brain change for the better. Engaging in outdoor physical activities can:
- Ease stress
- Fight depression
- Alleviate anxiety
- Boost your mood
- Increase your energy
- Boost self-esteem
- Promote better sleep
- Build stronger resilience
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.