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The Benefits of Green & Blue Exercise

woman exercising in a forest

You may have heard the (relatively new) term ‘green and blue exercise’ popping up in conversation and wondered what it meant. Well, according to Nollaig O’Sullivan, a performance psychologist at Zevo Health, green and blue relate to nature and water respectively, so the concept is all about encouraging people to run, walk or even just relax in parks, forests, and beaches. The benefits, she says, are huge.

Going Green

“Green exercise”, Nollaig begins, “is all about being physically active in the natural environment. The ‘biophilia hypothesis’ argues that we have this inherent attraction to nature, because it’s essentially within us. We seek out this connection; it comes from our ancestors.” As such, it’s not surprising that there are so many benefits, both physiological and psychological. “Being in a green environment can increase wellbeing, energy levels, self-esteem, and feelings of revitalisation. It’s also shown to reduce tension and anxiety”, says Nollaig. “The physiological benefits are huge as well. It can reduce blood pressure, increase levels of immune function, and reduce stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate.”

young family walking on beach

Blue Mind

The concept of the ‘blue mind’ (ie one that’s physically close to water) is associated with all sorts of positive effects too. “Marine biologist Wallace J Nichols is really the ‘godfather of water’”, says Nollaig. “He says that being on or near it can help with anxiety, sleep, attention, stress, and grief. It can even build resilience.” It makes sense since, as Nollaig points out, life is impossible without water. “70% of the world and our bodies are made up of it. We spend our first nine months in water, so we’re really connected with it.”

All the Benefits, Lower Perceived Effort

For anyone who prefers the treadmill, it might help to learn that research found those doing the same exercise outdoors perceive it to be easier. “During a walk outdoors”, says Nollaig, “individuals walked faster and worked harder, but reported lower perceived exertion.” There are a few potential factors at play here. “It could be down to boredom”, Nollaig notes. “If you’re on a treadmill in a gym, you’re likely looking at the same view. When you’re outdoors, you’re busy enjoying scenery and people. Whatever the cause, perceived effort is lessened.”

children playing in park in the rain

Nature Deficit Disorder

In today’s hectic world where everyone seems to be buried in their phone, it feels more important than ever to take a step back and appreciate the natural beauty all around us. Nollaig notes that there’s a worrying new trend called ‘nature deficit disorder’. “Because kids have so much technology these days”, she explains, “they’re not getting out in nature as much.” Nollaig, who has a toddler herself, urges parents to “encourage kids to go outside and get their hands dirty! A lot of the time for example, we’re afraid to go out in the rain. Anyone will tell you though when you’re in the forest and it rains, the smell is amazing.”

Every Little Helps

Though Nollaig advocates getting out into nature, she appreciates that some people enjoy the structure and routine of indoor exercise. “It’s not about telling people not to go to the gym”, she says. “Instead, break it up. Maybe do three days a week there, but then go out for a walk on the other two.” She also makes the point that being in nature doesn’t have to equate to sweaty 10k runs. “You don’t have to go on massive hikes. The concept of green exercise actually evolved from Japan, where they call it ‘forest bathing’. It’s not solely focussed on being active, just immersing yourself in nature.”

Little Changes

If you’re stuck for time and can’t get out for regular walks, there are other ways to bring nature to you. “If you’re in an office”, says Nollaig, potted plants can help. A study found that bringing plants into the workplace increased productivity by 15%. If you can’t have plants, put green or blue images on your computer’s screensaver. Choose something to do with trees or nature - it’ll have a calming effect.” Similarly, to introduce water into your life (if you don’t live near the sea or a river), she suggests “listening to an app playing water sounds at night.”

As you can see, to reap the benefits of green and blue exercise, you don’t have to completely overhaul your fitness routine. It’s the first five minutes in nature that are most mentally beneficial. Find out more about Zevo Health’s health and wellness programmes for companies here.


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