THE BLOG
04/18/2012 03:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

Exercise Squared: The Benefits of Exercise and Nature

Are you one of those people who love to exercise, the kind who thinks about it but doesn't quite do it, or one who believes exercise involves lifting the spoonful of ice cream into your mouth?

Is exercise fun for you, or do you view it as a chore?

How many times have you said you were going to start exercising and just couldn't motivate?

And if you do exercise regularly, what motivates you?

There are references to the importance of physical activity and exercise for optimal physical and mental health dating back to 4,500 years ago. Even the ancient Greek and Roman physicians advocated for more physical activity for better well-being. Within the past four decades, the science has flourished with evidence showing exercise is good for you -- especially in the prevention of diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression and osteoporosis.

In case you were wondering what these studies have been finding, the list of benefits is endless. For instance, a mere 20 minutes of exercise for children and teens can help them improve their focus and resiliency to stress. This could include walking to school. Moderate level of physical activity (level of intensity is such that you can still hold a conversation) was shown to improve resiliency to stress and protection of cells. The study conducted at UCSF showed that telomeres, or the tail ends of chromosomes, were more likely to keep their long length vs. break and be short with increased physical activity, conferring better health and a longer lifespan.

Better yet, exercise can have the same effect on brain chemicals as an antidepressant, increasing levels of serotonin, nerve cell growth factor and endorphins in the brain. It also improves antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In short, exercise or physical activity is one of your best stress buffers, therapy for focus, mood and cognition enhancing, and overall improved physical and mental health.

That being said, why do most people not do it? According to a recent study of Canada and Northern America, only 15 percent of adults meet the guidelines set by the World Health Organization of 150 minutes/week of physical activity, and only 7 percent of children and teens meet the guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day.

If you know its good for you, and even more so, if you don't want to be fat, for those of you that this applies to, then why don't you exercise or engage in more physical activity?

After all, human beings evolved moving, not sitting, driving, and reclining the majority of the day. In hunter/gatherer days, we were always moving. We walked, squatted, lifted, sprinted, jumped and climbed to survive. The reward to moving was to stay alive and get food. The stronger and faster we could be, the better the chances we had of reaping reward.

Now, you have shelter, supermarkets and cash in your pocket. Survival of the species involves getting in front of the next car in the fast food drive-through, finding the fastest lane in the grocery store, and ordering from the restaurant that has the fastest delivery time. The rewards for exercise have ceased to be associated with lifesaving or preserving rewards.

For many of you, it is because you don't like it, you have a negative mental outlook (it will cause pain, it's too hard, etc.), you are too tired, you are too busy sitting and working, or you find it boring. (Feel free to add to the list.)

Given these complaints, what can you do to get motivated?

Normally, the main factors that motivate people to do anything involve passion, purpose, people and pleasure. For instance, many normally sedentary people will walk for hunger, breast cancer or some other type of purpose. Others may have a passion for gardening or dancing, which motivates them to participate in the activity despite, let's say, pain. If it's fun, most are highly likely to go back for more. If other people are involved that one likes, the recipe for success is assured.

Studies are now showing that exercise compliance is more likely when it takes place outdoors. It has been found that "green" improves an individual's mental state without their realizing it. You may notice yourself that when you do exercise outdoors, you are less likely to notice cramping, fatigue or negative thoughts. Researchers at Texas State University have in fact found that athletes' performances improved when they were surrounded by more green space.

When you are outside, exposed to the beauty of nature, it's variability, it's smells and sounds, the brain automatically shifts into a positive mental state, as does the body. Individuals tend to feel a better sense of connection and are more likely to enjoy themselves in the physical activity they are doing.

What does this mean for you?

• Just do it.
• Make the time.
• Find a buddy, coach or trainer who can motivate you and keep you accountable.
• Join a group of people who participate in activities you might enjoy.
• Set goals, starting slow and working your way up to 8,000 steps/day or 30 minutes/day of moderate exercise (brisk walking, gardening, etc.) or 75 minutes/minutes of vigorous exercise (you can't hold a conversation).
• Find places in nature to exercise -- the more green and water, the better.
• Practice mindfulness and appreciate nature as you walk -- enjoying the colors, sounds, smells and feel.
• Keep it different and find a variety of activities that you enjoy. This way, you may not get so easily bored.

For more information, visit yourbrainonature.com, where references to these studies are available as well as information on the benefits of nature and the first chapter of Your Brain on Nature (Wiley 2012).

For more by Eva M. Selhub, M.D., click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.