balance on……the great outdoors

I’m sat writing this blog in a little holiday house on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. Out of the window I can see the sea, the sun shining down onto its tranquil waters through gaps in the cloud above that looks dark and heavy with rain.

I’ve just come back from a walk/run/play along the beautiful coastline. This morning I was up just after sunrise and typed out a few thousand words of my book, eager to make the most of the day with the deadline fast approaching at the end of this month!
Whilst I was out and about I got to thinking about what exactly it is that makes exercise outdoors so appealing. I’ve been writing about this topic recently for the book and it is something that fascinates me, why does an exercise session in nature feel so much easier and more enjoyable than one facing a wall in the corner of the gym?
I imagine there’s a myriad of reasons, different for everyone, but here are mine:
  • Sunshine – ok so us Brits certainly won’t get this every time we exercise, but when we do it makes a massive difference. This morning was grey and paired with a constant drizzle, but when the sun finally shone through, my mood seemed to lift just like the clouds had done. Skipping across the rocks that led to the beach and down the grassy coastal paths as the surprisingly warm rays of October sunshine soaked me in their warmth made the whole experience more pleasant. And it isn’t necessarily the sun that really matters; it’s the natural light. These days many of us, myself included spend hours at a desk sat inside, and from now until March this means we won’t actually get to feel much natural light on our skin. Even a 20-minute walk at lunchtime could make a difference, and now is a beautiful time of year to get amongst nature, with the mix of green, gold, orange, purple, brown, red and yellow on show.
  • The call of the wild – I don’t know about you, but as I jumped over big rocks, sprinted up steep grassy slopes, wove my way along muddy zig-zag paths surrounded by high-sided hedges, giving the impression I was moving twice as fast as I actually was, and played on the beach and in the sand dunes, I felt like an ancient warrior, at one with nature but with adrenaline coursing through my veins in the fight for survival. After reaching the highest summit I could find and looking down across the bay, I felt like the ruler of my kingdom, even though I was very out of breath and the sheep were looking at me like I was a little weird.
  • Sensory awareness – it isn’t just the sights that make the countryside, or any green space for that matter, an enjoyable place to be. There’s a host of smells and sounds that heighten the senses, sending the olfactory and auditory nerves into overdrive. And it appears that the brain likes this as serotonin, dopamine and all the other substances that make us happy come flooding through. The sound of the sea is a particular favourite of mine and it appears that I’m not alone, with research from Exeter University suggesting that people find exercise near water more enjoyable. Equally the smell of cut grass, or of tress wet after a recent downpour, comes top of many lists, including mine. OK, so the countryside may also have one or two unpleasant sights and smells and research does show that these decrease mood, but the beauty of nature in most cases far outweighs these.
  • Fresh air – the feel of a light breeze on your face is far preferable to the sensation that occurs when the air-con   gets switched on in the office; it’s just not the same. People  often talk of ‘fresh air’ and getting outside to ‘blow the cobwebs away’, it’s as if the wind literally rushes through your ears and nostrils and blows the bad thoughts of the  day clean out the other side.
  • Fun! There’s so much more temptation to play when we’re outside. The child in you just seems to want to come out  and re-live your youth. In between jumping over things, sprinting flat out and climbing over rocks, here’s a little stone stack I built on the beach. :-)

There’s clearly something to this outdoorsy thing, as an ever-growing number of people have shunned the gym in recent years in favour of the natural gymnasium. These include:
Boot Camp – go to any reasonably-sized park on a Saturday morning these days and you may catch a glimpse of people in coloured bibs being shouted at by a couple of people in army combats. The group environment, the lack of kit needed and the ready-made motivation appeal greatly to some and there are whole companies dedicated to just this style of training.
·      The Green Gym – this conservation project has become increasingly popular with exercise referral schemes for those with mild medical conditions. The physical nature of the gardening and landscaping work is ideal for a wide range of abilities, gives something back to the community and has a big social element to it. Some areas run Blue Gym schemes where the focus is on exercise in and around water.
·      Running, cycling and triathlon – these are among the fastest growing sports in the UK, with triathlon in particular booming in recent years. Why not try a tri if you want to break the monotony of the gym? You’ll find events for all levels across the UK.
   Sports - think beyond the traditional games of football, rugby and netball. These days you’ll find a host of sports accessible at all levels including baseball, rounders, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, and orienteering.
   Reading through a piece of research recently, I was interested to discover a piece of research that had discovered that people said they were far more likely to repeat an exercise session if they did it outdoors compared to indoors. Maybe their elevated mood from all of that fresh air, and possibly a bit of sunshine if they were really lucky, helped them to enjoy it.
   I myself will be up early tomorrow for another trip to the beach, may do a run and the build a sand castle!
   Balance your life, balance your scales.