The body was made to move, it is essential for our physical and mental wellbeing and especially potent when done in nature
For the most part of my childhood and teenage life, physical activity was like a dear friend that always seemed to be there when needed, yet never too imposing when not.
Growing up, everyone played at least one team sport or played outside by running, jumping, wrestling or just moving around. It was easy and normal; it just came naturally. I can’t remember the year I stopped appreciating the power of fitness, but I do know that after that, it was all downhill for my self-esteem, mood and happiness.
When you’re young — the not-a-single-worry-in-the-world young — your body and mind seem to instinctively embrace what’s healthy and discard what’s harmful.
As you age, you learn how to think things through and be responsible, but you also lose that instinct guiding you intuitively through what seems wrong and needs change.
I’m not saying that childish recklessness and impulsivity are the ways to go through life, but sometimes clearing your mind of mounting thoughts opens space to see simple, yet powerful solutions which have been buried in there all the time.
In my case, a moment of epiphany came in the realization that every life-changing decision I make comes from an empty and open mind, clear of distractions. With this mindset, the truth is always simple:
If I want a happy and fulfilling life, I need to return to nature.
One way to do so is by excercising in nature.
THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE
The stress, anxiety, mood swings, and depression that most people deal with in their adult life are often a consequence of negligent self-care and chronic over-thinking. I’m not talking about clinical depression and serious mental illnesses; I’m talking about what the majority of people experience.
Movement is cross-sectionally associated with lowering neuroticism, anxiety and stress. Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication — but without the side-effects. Imagine it as a means of instantly feeling better about yourself without having to depend on pills or drugs.
To address these concerns, we often forget about the role of nature in preserving mental health. Spending some time in fresh air and natural light on a daily basis can reduce mood swings and trigger positive thinking.
For me, the simplest and the least overwhelming activity to take up was jogging. It’s a perfect activity to keep you fit. I enjoy the deep, full breathing one can do only when outside. When I started running, I’d lose myself following the path’s curve in my neighborhood park and feel every bump and dent under my trainers.
Counting trees, identifying smells, and giving in to gentle bird sounds became an activity on its own, an incidental practice of mindfulness and peace I didn’t expect.
Beyond individual fitness regimens, team sports like field hockey, football, basketball, and other goal-oriented activities are great for creating a sense of belonging and purpose. The communal atmosphere is beneficial for boosting self-esteem and creating a better self-image. Likewise, the more you spend quality time in nature with other people of same interests, the more you feel the urge to be outside, to socialize, and to contribute to a unified goal.
Exercise, whether it be hitting the gym, taking a fitness class, or going for a run, is the best thing you can do for yourself right after you open your eyes. Research has shown that moderate-intensity physical activity, like running, is highly beneficial since it releases chemicals like endorphins, the mood-boosting hormones, without being too intense and demanding on the body.
There are also benefits to repetitive, rhythmic physical activity like running, swimming, cycling, and hiking which are great for tackling ruminative thinking (repetitive, obsessive and usually negative over-thinking). Compare it to a mother consistently rocking a baby in a cradle.
WAKING UP WITH NATURE
I was always a die-hard night owl. I tend to get a creative burst of energy around 11 p.m. (and I still do now, even as a converted morning person). This ability to burn the midnight oil certainly came in handy when procrastination kicked in at college. I’ve since concluded that my brain is wired to stay up late and wake up late.
For a long time, I didn’t realize that I’m actually missing a lot by isolating myself at night. Although I was being productive with work, other areas of my life were suffering badly — my eating habits were erratic, I would often sleep in or not sleep at all, I didn’t exercise, and I couldn’t make myself go out and socialize with friends because I was always tired. Working at night can nourish feelings of self-sufficiency and provide comfort in solitude, yet this pattern can also tempt you into further isolation from the rest of the world.
But converting to a morning person takes effort.
In the beginning, the horror of waking up to a 5 a.m. alarm sound may seem unbearable, but in time your body and mind get used to this rhythm, especially when you start experiencing the benefits of getting up before everybody else.
Nature is at its finest in the morning. It’s neither too dark nor too hot and you get to participate in the gradual awakening of the day. It’s almost a meditative-like state that transcends the physical and becomes a way to heal the mind. Exercising outside in the morning gives you a chance to feel nature without any distractions that inevitably come as the day progresses due to crowds, noise, traffic, and overwhelming worries about daily obligations that ruin the pleasure.
My experience with exercising in the morning made me feel like I’m truly in the nature, even though I live in a busy area.
I felt like I belonged there, like I owed it to the grass and the bright sky and the trees, to celebrate their existence. All of that is reinforced by a runner’s high that the exercising brings which left me with a recharged mind, and a sense of belonging and importance that wasn’t dependent on other people or situations.
Life-changing decisions come from a clear head; nothing meaningful ever happens when your brain is stressed.
A simple run in the morning may be more healing and stress-reducing than any therapy or drug.
Ultimately, what I discovered is that I can single-handedly heal my mind by giving it what it craves: a fusion of nature and exercise.
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