Using Your Workout To Fight Depression: The Benefits of "Green Exercise" and Avoiding Creepy Dudes

Friday, May 16, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

Numerous studies link exercise to mental health improvement, possibly due to the release of endorphins or assistance in regulating stress response systems.

But I have a confession to make: I hate going to the gym. 

There, I said it. It's not the actual exercise part, not really. It's more that I always get stuck on a stair climber next to those people who barely sweat in their unwrinkled workout clothes, while I huff away in my yoga pants and three-day-old socks. 

Then, there's always that creepy dude in the corner who seems intent on watching the people on the stair climbers, regardless of their sock situation. 

"Hey, baby. I've got something you can climb..." 

Pass, creepy dude. 

Luckily, there might be a better way to exercise, one that leads to higher rates of emotional benefits.

Green exercise programs--which combine physical activity and socialization with the great outdoors--may be even more effective at improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and low self worth than exercise alone. 

The Benefits of Green Exercise 

Canadian researchers found a link between socially-based green exercise and mood improvements in a study published in Perspectives in Public Health1. In this study, researchers looked at data from 53 individuals who had a range of mental health problems including depression, anxiety and low self esteem.

Each attended one of three programs:  

  1. A green exercise program where participants walked or ran outdoors in a group
  2. A social club
  3. An indoor swimming exercise group

Researchers found that those in the outdoor activity group showed improvements in self esteem measures on questionnaires after only  one session. 


Suck on that, creepy dude. 

And subsequent outdoor social activity helped even more. Over the six week study period, those in the green activity group continued to show further improvements in self esteem and overall mood. These improvements were significantly more positive than the effects seen in the social club or the indoor exercise group. Researchers concluded that the combination of green activity and socialization is more powerful than social activities alone or indoor exercise groups, supporting a green approach to mental health. 

On a related note, how many climate change skeptics does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. It's too early to tell if the lightbulb needs changing.  

Get your outdoor activity while you can, people. 

Why Does Green Exercise Decrease Stress? 

This socialization/exercise model may work more effectively for a few reasons.

Exercise as a whole increases activity on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), a complex feedback system that includes interactions between the endocrine glands (the Hypothalamus, the Pituitary and the Adrenals). These systems assist automatic processes like digestion, but also play a role in regulating stress responses and hormones. Exercise may serve to assist the body in purging additional stress hormones and improve how well this system works. 

"Tell your mother I can't call her back, honey. I need some time to improve the functioning of my hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis." I suppose in the amount of time it takes her to look that up, you might be able to get a glass of wine in as well. Score. 

Why the outdoor exercise thing works is not as clear cut, though other studies have confirmed links between outdoor exercise and mood improvements. When compared with those who exercise indoors, outdoor groups feel more revitalized with increases in energy and have fewer symptoms of depression, tension, confusion or anger2. Why one outdoor exercise session would improve things so quickly is a matter of some debate, but over time, exercising outdoors may be able to increase your intake of vitamin D, a vitamin strongly linked to depressive responses. Increasing your absorption of vitamin D though outdoor exercise may lead to additional improvements in the long term. 

But it's more than the vitamin D or the overall improvements in system function. Women in particular have evolved to be incredibly sensitive to support systems, so much so that we secrete oxytocin during times of stress, a chemical linked to attachment and connection. Since fleeing with small children was rarely a possibility during our evolutionary history, this innate "tend and befriend" drive leads us to gravitate towards others during times of high anxiety.

We evolved to kick ass in a group. Girl power. So though other research might indicate that the great outdoors is beneficial as a whole, the fact that we are so innately sensitive to social support is a strong argument for green exercise with friends as opposed to climbing a lonely stairway to creepy town. 

Does chasing kids around the block with a neighbor while drinking wine from a Thermos count as green exercise?  

If so: green exercise, check.

Spiked water bottle or no, walking with a few friends definitely seems more doable than getting to the gym, mostly because real friends don't judge you on your socks...or whatever the hell creepy guy is judging you on.

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