“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks…and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir
Whether you’re suffering from a low mood, anxiety or depression or if you’re experiencing the heartbreak of losing someone you loved, running or walking outdoors in a natural setting can help you feel better in many ways.
Run outdoors to lift your mood and stimulate creative thinking
According to a 2010 study, when we experience heartbreak, our brain’s response is similar to that of cocaine withdrawal. In other words, you need all the feel-good chemicals you can get to counteract this feeling of withdrawal.
Exercising regularly during times of heartbreak can reduce stress and anxiety, and stop depression from creeping up on you. It really can give you a bit of a high by releasing endorphins – and every positive emotion counts during times of extreme sadness.
Just getting out and moving our bodies in nature usually lifts our mood. Scientists have discovered that the areas of the brain that are responsible for repeated negative thoughts and critical thinking become less active while you are running or walking outdoors.
Once the mind has been quietened in this way, deeper brain areas become more active, allowing more lucid, creative and imaginative thinking to happen.
It’s a good recipe for coming back feeling better so that we can be better for the people around us.
Find peace of mind in nature
The science says that moving your body in a natural setting is healing, and the colour green is soothing. It’s also quite well established that connecting to the Earth is grounding.
Being in nature allows you to enter a more relaxed state of mind by switching off your physiological stress response. According to one scientific study, a biomarker related to inflammation was reduced when people spent time outdoors and felt awe when they were surrounded by nature. Perhaps the feeling of being part of something far greater than ourselves helps us feel more relaxed, peaceful and grounded.
In comparison, running on a treadmill in a gym is an unnatural, mechanical movement, because you’re tricking your brain by running without going anywhere. You’re also feeding a competitive mindset of running against a time or speed, or maybe other people in the gym.
So, if we can let go of goal-orientated exercise, and move purely for pleasure, experiencing different terrains while breathing in fresh oxygen and taking in the views, the colours and the sounds of nature (rather than pumping techno!), we can find more peace of mind and more connection, as well as a more tuned-in and tuned-up body.
From loathing to loving via heartbreak – my personal journey with running
I had always believed I was a useless runner. I even had repetitive dreams about how terrible I was. My legs would never move in my dreams, as much as I forced them to; they felt like dead weights.
As a kid I hated running. I was severely asthmatic and whilst trying my hardest in school sports day races, my ankles collapsed often, sending me to the ground in humiliation.
So, I had my reasons to dislike running. I decided it was not for me, and abandoned it at the first opportunity.
Around 15 years ago, I started running again. It did not come naturally to me, but came out of desperation and necessity. It was through being heart-broken.
I thought I would fall apart if I didn’t do something. Not knowing what else I could do, and not being able to sleep through the night, I got up and ran! It was my Forest Gump moment: “I just felt like running”.
That was the spark that ignited my passion. Something shifted during that first run. I came back feeling empowered and uplifted… temporarily, until my mind got involved again. So, I’d have to go out and repeat, to get that feeling back again the very next day.
Even after a night of drowning my sorrows, I could get up at 5 am and run 9 or 10 miles. The drive to run was so strong. It was the new light that pulled me out of the darkness, the ’runner’s high’, even though I didn’t know what that was yet.
So, I thank the Universe, the inner wisdom, or whatever it was, that inspired me to get up and run, to get me to ‘act’ instead of trying to ‘think’ my way out of the problem. To get me connected to my body, and get me out of my head. To stop me searching for and pursuing happiness through something or someone else, and to ultimately realise happiness can be found within myself; running was my saviour.
Running became time that was solely for me. It was a time when I could invigorate my body and let my mind be free for once. I quickly noticed the effects of running translating over to my anxiety responses to stressful situations in my day-to-day life. I came to depend on my time running outdoors almost as a meditation.
Having that slice of time for myself, connecting with nature and my body simultaneously, was undoubtedly a huge help in managing my grief and emotional health.
Before I knew it, my mind began to connect with my body more than it ever had before.
Exercise in nature to improve your life
So, making a small space in your day to move, preferably in nature, will improve your day, your health, your happiness and ultimately your life!
We take for granted this amazing body we have. If we can move it, then we probably should, as one day we might not be able to.
Much of our connectedness to ourselves and the world around us is through movement. It’s in our original nature; it helps us understand ourselves in order to understand everything else…. it’s our biology, it’s part of our evolution.
Allow running or walking outdoors to show you how wonderful your life is:
“That’s the thing about running: Your greatest runs are rarely measured by racing success. They are the moments in time when running allows you to see how wonderful your life is.” – Kara Goucher
Written by Rebecca Lewis
About the author
After travelling the world for 12 years as a successful photographer, Rebecca found her health and energy levels depleted. Inspired by a sailing trip, she embarked on a complete change of career and lifestyle that brought her back to nature. Finding herself thriving rather than surviving, she decided to forego her career in London for a life wealthier in health.
Seven years later she is working in Mallorca as a running technique coach and dedicated yoga instructor, with a passion for healthy living and the outdoors that she loves to share with others.