We know that moving our bodies positively impacts not only our physical fitness, but also our mental wellbeing. But were you aware that doing the same movement in the great outdoors has additional benefits for mental health? Personal trainer and counsellor Kylianne Farrell tells us more.
The connection between movement, nature and mental wellbeing has been a fascination of mine for most of my adult life. I have spent thousands of hours over the years looking for the multiple reasons, both in research and in practice, as to why it is so transformative and beneficial for myself and for others.
Here are some of the mental health benefits of moving in nature that you may not know about, and some ways you can apply them yourself and with your clients.
Of the countless awe inspiring moments I have experienced while exercising in nature, both in blue or green spaces, many have been pivotal moments, sparking wonder that led to change – both personal and professional. One such moment occurred when I was hiking the Kokoda trail through a challenging but incredible forest. I was struck by a moment of awe, that was soon followed by an idea that ended up becoming the business that I run today.
Awe is a positive emotion that is caused by being in the presence of things that are bigger than ourselves, that we can not immediately comprehend or that are vast1. Positive emotions like awe promote prosocial behaviours that increase connection with others. We know that these behaviours are an important part of staying mentally well, and a factor that contributes to life satisfaction.
To tap into awe, seek out new and novel ways to move in nature: take a walk along the coast or plan a hike in an area you haven’t explored before. You don’t have to radically alter your usual routine to get in touch with nature though – simply tuning out of your podcast and into your senses as you take your daily walk can facilitate moments of awe in familiar surroundings. It’s amazing how we can walk a route for years without really noticing everything that’s around us. Sometimes it really is as simple as looking up, and noticing a mighty gum tree, branches filled with lorikeets and swaying in the breeze, or a striking cloud formation against the evening sky.
There are endless things to see in our rich and biodiverse country. Natural environments can allow for us to engage in something called ‘soft fascination’ that creates the space for mental recovery. When finding elements of a natural environment fascinating, our attention can be directed in a way that actually restores our cognitive resources2. This focused time in nature permits the ‘thinking brain’ to take a break, while allowing the other parts of the brain that are associated with emotions, pleasure and empathy to become more active.
This altered brain activity isn’t just anecdotal: studies involving brain scans and blood tests have revealed clearly measurable changes that correlate with an increased sense of calm3. Whether you stand-up paddleboard, walk, run, hike, ride or dive, just head in with curious eyes and allow your senses to take in whatever you find.
Self-focused rumination can negatively impact our mental health. The same negative thoughts and self-talk going round in circles in our minds. A good way to deal with rumination is surprisingly simple: distraction.
Both nature and exercise allow for positive distraction. In practice, I have witnessed people being far better able to cope and problem solve after moving in nature. Immersion in nature floods the senses, pulling you out of the inner negative feedback loop of rumination, and creating space for curiosity and positive emotions that can boost mental wellbeing4.
Trees produce aromatic chemicals called phytoncides that can uplift and relax the brain5. These phytoncides have been shown to lower the production of stress hormones, reduce levels of anxiety and even boost immunity5. The Japanese term ‘shinrin-yoku’, which translates to ‘forest bathing’, recognises these revitalising qualities of immersing yourself in forest walks.
I have the privilege of leading group multi-day hikes annually, with days spent deep in the forest. Participants often state that these are their favourite days of the treks, with the reduction in stress evident even after a big day on the track.
We know that movement is beneficial for mental health, we feel it each time we do it. Moving in nature supercharges this effect, making it a powerful combination when looking to boost our mental and physical wellbeing.
How do you train clients with mental illness?
Kylianne is the creator of the Network 3-CEC course ‘Movement for mental health: A guide to training clients with mental illness through exercise’.
This online course has been designed for fitness professionals who are interested in learning how to coach clients living with depression and/or anxiety that have been prescribed exercise by a mental health professional to help them on their journey to recovery. The information covered in the course will help fitness professionals confidently coach and guide clients to use exercise as a tool to reduce symptoms, reconnect to self, get to the heart of goal setting and move to feel better.
Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.