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How getting outside can help you (and your mind) get fit

Being in nature can be one of life’s simple pleasures. Lying in a shaded spot in a park, feeling cool blades of grass against our skin, catching a breeze with the scent of spring. Whether we live in a crowded city or on a remote farm, we all have the ability to experience the great outdoors. And when we do, moving our body can be good for us, too. Several small studies have shown that simply walking outside (compared to a treadmill inside) can bring us more joy.

When we add mindfulness to our time spent away from the four walls of our homes, the benefits multiply, reminding us that we’re all connected. As Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe, says: “We are always part of something bigger. Not just the people around us, but life around us, the world around us. And as long as we have that in our mind, then we’re never alone. That feeling of connection will give us a sense of peace, contentment, and love on the good days, and it will [also] see us through many difficult challenges in life.”

Mindfulness - How getting outside can help you (and your mind) get fit
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Key takeaways:

  • Spending time outside can help reduce stress

  • Bringing awareness to outdoor activities can help us feel more connected

  • Try 8 meditations for getting outside

Why being outside is good for your health

Many of us can relate to feeling better once we’re able to step outside and take a deep breath. It turns out that breathing in outdoor air can do more for our health than we might realize. Research shows that stress levels can decrease significantly after spending just 15 minutes out and about in green spaces. What’s more, the benefits of green spaces extend all the way to helping us live longer: one study, carried out between 2000-08, monitored 100,000 nurses across the U.S. and found that participants who lived closest to large amounts of green spaces or areas of vegetation — including in urban green areas — had a 12% lower mortality rate than those who did not.

Bringing a sense of awareness when we’re outside — whether running on a trail in a forest or walking down a bustling city street — is an opportunity to slow our mind and bring our attention to what we’re experiencing in the moment. Outside, we’re able to get the same benefits we know from mindfulness, including decreased stress and a better ability to focus.

When we’re mindful, we’re not walking around lost in thought; we are present, observing our surroundings, in terms of the sights, sounds, and smells around us and how they make us feel. We are, in short, more connected to the world around us. As Andy says): “When we understand that in essence we are not separate — from each other, from nature, or from the world around us — we create the conditions for a whole new connection with life.”

The benefits of outdoor activities

While spending time outside is beneficial on its own, these physical activities can help both body and mind thrive:

  • Walking.

One study found that people who walk have lower stress levels. And when we focus our attention through a walking meditation, we’re able to take it one step further, literally — bringing body and mind in sync to train our mind in awareness while we move.

  • Running.

Running has more in common with meditation than we might think: both use repetition to increase the effectiveness and benefits of each practice. Research shows that when we run outside, we flex our ankles more, vary our movements, and use different muscles than we would on a treadmill. Running outside doesn’t only have benefits for our body, but for our mind, too. Unlike a treadmill where we run in place, running outside forces us to focus on our next steps and obstacles in our way to get us to the finish.

  • Gardening.

Exercise isn’t the only option for reaping the health benefits of spending time outside. Mindful gardening is another way to focus our attention on what we’re experiencing outdoors, specifically the beauty, change, and growth that a garden shows us. Caring for a garden can also be an exercise in gratitude, a practice that can lead us to an overall sense of happiness and well-being.

  • Forest bathing.

Sometimes, simply making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of a green space can be beneficial for our health. Developed by Japanese doctors, shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” has been shown in several studies to lower pulse rates, blood pressure, and concentrations of cortisol. That doesn’t mean we need to move to the countryside or drive several hours to the closest forest to experience these benefits. Urban green spaces can also provide a sense of calming and grounding, giving us the same opportunity to connect with nature by lying down on some grass, planting our feet in the soil, or sitting by a tree.

Try 8 meditations for getting outside

Looking for more meditations for spending mindful time outside? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations on exercises in and appreciation of the outdoors, including:

  • Loving Earth meditation. When we learn to appreciate what the Earth provides for us, we can learn to love, respect, and take care of all forms of life.

  • Connect With the World mindful activity. Reflect on all the sights and sounds, and feel how your body moves through the world.

  • Walking in Nature mindful activity. Let go of the thinking mind and reconnect with nature by trying this exercise and technique.

  • Walking in the City mindful activity. By bringing attention to your awareness, the mind can become calm and allow you to feel more connected with your body and the world around you.

  • Run Easy mindful activity. Lace up for an introductory run with Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe and Nike Running Global Head Coach, Chris Bennett.

  • Run Smart mindful activity. Work on changing your approach to running, by becoming more aware of your thoughts.

  • Keep Running mindful activity. Use this run when you need extra support from Andy and Nike Coach Chris Bennett to get the most out of a workout.

  • Gardening mindful activity. Awaken the senses with an exercise that encourages you to step outside and smell the roses.

Whether it’s a day where we find ourselves tethered to a screen or a day with nothing on our schedule at all, opting outside is always a good move. Taking the attention and awareness that we learn from mindfulness into the outdoors can help us feel our best — both in body and in mind.

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