You probably know that exercise is good for you and that daily physical activity—going for a walk, for example—is associated with improved health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well-being.
What you may not know is that where you exercise matters, too. Exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children. I have written about outdoor exercise in the past, but now that it is summer, an ideal time to get outdoors, this a good time to revisit some the benefits of being active in nature.
The National Park Prescription (Park Rx) Initiative is designed to encourage people to make the outdoors their destination for exercise and family activities. In fact, April 24th was National Park Rx Day. The idea is to promote access to and use of parks, trails, and other green spaces and highlight the health, environmental, social, and economic benefits of having these resources in our communities. The benefits of parks can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or ability, so enhancing public lands should be a high priority.
This isn’t new of course, but it’s nice to have a reminder. At playgrounds you commonly see as many children playing in the trees that surround the swings, slides, and monkey bars as you see on the playground equipment. Grassy areas serve as picnic spots, impromptu sports fields, and places to run and play. Trails through the woods offer a place to hike and bike as well as trees to explore and climb. Lakes, rivers, and streams (called water trails) are perfect for rowing, paddling, and swimming. And many public parks and green spaces have paved trails so that people of all ages in strollers or wheelchairs can enjoy the outdoors.
Fortunately, there many excellent parks and natural areas to explore in the Aiken area. Aiken State Park, several county and city parks, and neighborhood playgrounds make it easy to find a place to be active outdoors. There is no better place to experience nature than the vast Hitchcock Woods, located right in the heart of Aiken. Community organizations like the GAIT Foundation are dedicated to expanding access to natural areas for all types of outdoor activates. This makes it easy to find a place to walk, run, bike, hike, climb, swim, paddle, push, or ride.
It also makes it easy to follow the Park Rx. Being active is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing. Activity in a natural environment has additional physical, mental, and social health benefits. Share these benefits with others by planning outdoor activities with your family and friends. For maximum effect, you should do this as often as possible—everyday is best. And it doesn’t need to be a day-long excursion. Even taking your dog for a short walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to reap the benefits of being active outdoors.