It’s that time of year when the nation attempts to shrug off the sugar and burn the calories of Christmas’ excesses – gym memberships soar and for a while at least, the treadmills whir with collective guilt and the effort to restore a healthy balance. Sadly there will be all too few of us that achieve our objective, enthusiasm for such spaces waning long before the light evenings return, leaving us cloistered inside, waiting for Spring.
Of course the benefits of exercise are well known – from leading a healthier life to boosting self-esteem and reducing the risk of stress and depression. It is increasingly billed as the magic pill for a long list of ailments yet despite this growing awareness, less than a third of UK adults walk for recreation once a month. During the short days of winter, the figure is smaller still.
Research conducted recently by the University of Essex* found evidence to suggest that walking as well as cycling in green spaces, improved participants’ well-being and saw fast improvements in self-esteem as well as mood.
Meanwhile Glasgow University researchers found that the positive impact of exercise on people’s mental health who exercised in natural environments was 50% greater than those who didn’t.
This growing body of evidence suggests that in order to reap the maximum physical and mental health benefits from exercise, being outdoors is key.
Consider your local gym, a building filled with machines mostly pointing in the direction of a TV. Here you can exercise without even realising it, distracted by a plethora of music and screens – but this distraction undermines the positive effects. Perhaps there is some truth after all in the old sports coaches’ mantra – no pain, no gain.
Of course exercise doesn’t really need to be painful. Instead of the gym, seek out those routes you can walk, run or ride nearby – a local park, woodland or reservoir that offers the freedom to choose the direction of travel and change the view. Engaging with our surroundings can serve not only to stimulate our senses but test our abilities. Proprioception for instance – essentially the ability to keep track of our limbs in space – it forms the basis of ‘hand-eye coordination’ and developing it brings varied benefits in everyday life.
For most of us, there is more on our doorstep than we realise – and finding that local walk or quick ride for a short winter afternoon might be easier than you think. If our urban based, technology-driven lifestyles have pushed the masses further from green spaces than ever before, it is also pulling many of us back: Inspired by technology
So if you haven’t yet made a New Year’s resolution – at least one recreational walk every month is a resolution there’s no excuse not to keep.
* Environmental Science and Technology journal