Contributed by reader Jennifer Barnes
Positive Impact of Exercise and Outdoor Recreation on Stress
Although many of us put up with stress, this can take its toll on you and adversely affect your health. Indeed, according to Dr Weil close to a half of adults suffer from problems related to stress, with stress linked to conditions ranging from heart disease to cancer, and when under immense pressure you are also more likely to experience an accident or take your own life. While mental strain can vary from mild to more serious, the key is to take prompt action to manage stress. Identifying triggers for stress and dealing with these is an important starting point recommended by the Mayo Clinic, but they also point out that there are various techniques you can use for stress reduction. This doesn’t mean you need to take up yoga or tai chi, as a healthy lifestyle that includes outdoor activity can help you to manage stress more effectively. Getting out in a kayak to go fishing is therefore a great idea if you’re looking for stress relief.
Positive impact of exercise on stress
While it is true that too much physical activity can stress your body and mind, getting the right balance between exercise and rest is vital to help you relax. Exercise in all its forms is already known to benefit mental well-being, helping to boost mood and reduce anxieties, which often accompany stress. Taking regular aerobic exercise doesn’t just bring about positive changes in your metabolism and fitness though, as it also triggers positive changes in your brain too. For instance, Harvard Medical School (2011) explains that when you work your body this reduces production of the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol that are responsible for the symptoms you experience when under pressure. That’s not all though, as physical activity also stimulates production of mood-boosting endorphins and the chemical messengers dopamine and serotonin, which not only give you a natural high, but also help you to relax. Beyond changes within your body, exercise also promotes positive behaviors such as helping you to at least temporarily forget your worries, to engage socially and even to take up other healthy habits such as choosing a nutritious diet, all of which can help you cope better with stress.
As a guide for how much exercise you should include weekly for stress management, Niagara University suggests building up to between three and five sessions of aerobic activity each week that last between 30 and 60 minutes. Aerobic exercise is anything that gets your heart beating faster and you breathing more heavily, so includes walking, jogging, cycling, team sports and water-based activities like swimming and kayaking. Resistance training, which builds your muscle strength, is also recommended two or three times weekly, though many forms of aerobic activity include components that allow you to increase your strength, such as through paddling a kayak.
Outdoor recreation provides greater stress reduction
Although all exercise has a potential role in stress reduction, it appears that outdoor activities offer greater benefits. Whether you take advantage of green spaces in urban areas or you head to the countryside, people who spend more time in natural environments report reduced levels of anxiety, low mood and stress-related illness. A review of the evidence by Clemson University (2009) for the positive impact of outdoor recreation on health and wellness also showed that outdoor recreation reduces markers of stress, such as raised cortisol, blood pressure and muscle tension. Interestingly, a research paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (2010) found that benefits for mental wellness were experienced after just five minutes of outdoor activity. The researchers also noted that activity on or around water provided greater benefits still, making water-based activities an even better bet when you suffer from stress. Getting closer to nature may have an enhanced impact thanks to the calming effects of a tranquil environment and with this the ability to switch off from the problems that contribute to stress.
Outdoor activities in PTSD
Experiencing extremely stressful events, such as being involved in a serious accident, taking part in military combat, being held hostage or witnessing other horrific events, can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder is characterized by flash backs, nightmares and difficulty sleeping, but can also lead to depression, intense worry and guilt, emotional numbness and a range of physical symptoms. While Psych Guides explains that effective medical treatments for PTSD are available, this is not the only option. In fact, there is now evidence that veterans who suffer from mental health problems, including PTSD, can benefit from outdoor activities. For instance, a study reported by Science Daily (2013) showed that veterans achieved significant psychological and social benefits from group wilderness recreation, which included kayaking and fishing among the activities. The veterans also developed a more positive outlook following the experience, with benefits lasting for as long as a month afterwards.
Outdoor recreational experiences like those offered by Heroes On The Water are particularly effective at helping veterans, as they offer positive experiences similar to those gained through military service, such as completing physical challenges and working as a team to achieve a goal. The fact that they are outside adds to the familiarity of the experience, allowing heightened benefits from the natural environment.