Five years ago, if you had told me I would describe myself as a runner, I would have laughed at you. Were there bears behind me? Zombies, perhaps? Without one of those key ingredients, there seemed no reason to run much of anywhere. In fact, outdoor time in general was limited to what my kids could talk me into, especially during the hottest months of summer. I might be talked into a little swimming, but certainly nothing more strenuous than that!
Then it happened: I hit that dreaded 30 mark. Overweight, suffering from postpartum depression, and tired of making excuses, I decided to take control of my life.
I started running.
Why Not the Treadmill?
Given my general dislike of the outdoors through my late teens and twenties, plenty of people asked me, “Why not run on a treadmill?” At least that’s climate controlled, right?
Well, sure. There’s just one problem with that: on a treadmill, I tended to trip over my own two feet. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of running at a consistent pace, and frankly, it left me more frustrated than before. Then there’s the fact that in order to have access to a treadmill, I would either have to buy one (ouch!) or purchase a gym membership. When you’ve been making excuses more than you’ve been spending time exercising for several years, that gym membership seems more like an expensive potential waste than it does incentive for anything.
Outside it was. As it turns out, running outside has more benefits than I could have imagined. Hitting the trail and seeing nature all around me, has offered more benefits than running on a static treadmill indoors ever could have.
The Benefits of Running Outside
Running outside is free and has its own built-in incentive. You run out to new distances, excited about exploring new places or enjoying a gorgeous day, and then somehow, you have muster up the energy to get back. Running regularly has also encouraged me to start eating significantly healthier: it’s not worth the junk food when I know it’s going to drag me down on my run the next day.
Being outside in nature has been found to decrease levels of stress and anxiety and other mental health issues, but when combined with exercise, the results are much greater. Green exercise is activity in the presence of nature. Evidence shows it leads to positive short and long-term health outcomes. The study conducted by the University of Essex found that both men and women had similar improvements in self-esteem after green exercise and the mentally ill had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements. This study confirms that the environment provides an important health service.
A study done by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences, Chiba University in Japan found that students who spent time outdoors in the forest showed 12.4% decrease in cortisol level, 7.0% decrease in sympathetic nervous activity, 1.4% decrease in systolic blood pressure, and 5.8% decrease in heart rate. This shows that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy. If that’s not enough to get you running out on those forest trails, I don’t know what will!
Another study directed by the University of Michigan, found that people’s mental energy bounced back even when they just looked at pictures of nature. The study compared the restorative effects on cognitive functioning of interactions with natural versus urban environments. In natural environments, the stimuli modestly grab the attention of the observer giving their directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically, leaving the observer to direct their attention to these potential dangers and not allowing for the restoration to fully occur.
Three years after I started running, I’ve finally found a sport I love whether I’m doing it alone or with a friend. I’ve lost a total of 40 lbs, trimmed down, and instead of gasping when I hit the quarter-mile mark, I’m training for a half marathon this year. Not only that, my mood has settled, and both depression and anxiety are, if not things of the past, much more manageable than they once were. It’s been quite the journey–but it’s also been well worth every step along the way.