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Dec 12, 2023 by Marc Peruzzi
Photograph Dave Cox

Only Solutions: Don't call it Hedonism

Research in the field of “green exercise” reveals there's more to the outdoors than cheap thrills.

We used to know things.

As kids, me and my brother grew moody indoors and took it out on each other with head locks, rabbit punches, and carpet burns. Today we’d be prescribed Prozac (me) and Ritalin (bro). But that wasn’t my Boston-Irish mother’s response. Her green eyes emitting light, Mah would shove us out the door for a dose of the natural world. 

One game the neighborhood kids played had a Scylla and Charybdis vibe. When Nor’easters battered the coast, we’d run between the raging North Atlantic and jetty boulders piled against a 20-foot seawall. Run too slow and the waves would knock you against the rocks and roll you towards open water. 

As antidotes for mild situational depression and ADHD go, that mad scramble was a hypodermic needle to the chest—even if natural selection was not in our favor.

After such outings, me and my brother grew almost fraternal, cracking wise through suppah and clearing our plates even on boiled meat night. But by the time Heckle and Jeckle were over in the morning, we were pummeling each other. 

As antidotes for mild situational depression and ADHD go, that mad scramble was a hypodermic needle to the chest.

 

It’s only now, after thousands of studies and the mixed results of prescription drugs and expensive therapy, that experts acknowledge that my mother’s generation had it right. Today it’s called “green exercise.” Back then it was just “clearing your head” or “get the hell out, you’re incorrigible.” The theories repeatedly proven by these studies have it that green exercise makes us happier, sharper, and more creative. 

Because research changes public policy and my Mah does not, I won’t bemoan the fact that modernity discounts what we know is true in favor of studies. The hope with green exercise research is that instead of piping Xanax through the ductwork, we make simple and cheap policy decisions like reinstating recess and physical education in schools and planting trees in cities. Instead of immediately defaulting to drugs, a mental health provider might first suggest a hike. 

And that’s the type of treatment we’re talking about. In a meta-study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in February, 2023, researchers identified more than 15,000 studies on exercise and depression. After narrowing it down, they determined that the subjects—all diagnosed with depression—alleviated their symptoms by 5 to 6.5 points simply by exercising. For context, those improvements are slightly better than what medication and therapy deliver. 

Nature offers similar healing powers. In Japan, forest bathing and the incorporation of natural materials into the construction of schools, office buildings, and hospitals is proven to alleviate depression while lowering heart rates. 

Photograph Kelly Gorham
The research is in our favor. Green exercise keeps you sane and boosts creativity. Rider: Joe Chalmers. Location: Missoula, Montana.

Which gets us to green exercise. If nature lifts our mood and exercise does too, does doubling down double the effect? That’s the question that Katherine Boere, an ultra-runner, alpinist, and Ph.D. student in the Theoretical & Applied Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Victoria’s Department of Exercise Science, Physical Health & Education set out to test recently. 

Boere and her team had 15 participants exercise indoors and 15 run though the same workout—a brisk 15-minute walk—in nature. Then they hooked everyone up to mobile EEG devices and had them perform what’s called an oddball test in which participants tap a screen in response to infrequent stimuli—green circles—in a sea of blue circles. The task elicits a brain reaction called the P300. More P300 means stronger attention. If you exercised in nature just now you probably guessed at the results. The outdoor walkers significantly outperformed the indoor walkers in both reaction time and the P300 response. 

Boere’s study—published in 2023 in the journal Nature—appears to validate what’s known as “restoration theory,” which holds that exposure to the natural world induces “soft fascination” in which you take in natural beauty all at once. In nature, unlike staring at a screen, your attention isn’t dominated by any one thing. Entering this state helps the mind recover. 

 

 

“Attention and cognitive abilities work like muscles,” says Boere. “As with resting between intervals when training the body, a walk in nature gives your brain the chance to recover for the next hard set. When you get back to work, you have improved focus and concentration.”

The researcher Katherine Boere out training her P300.

If you’re a Hence follower or a creative, you see where this is going. Creativity depends on enhanced cognition and happiness. The novelist and journalist Gabriel García Márquez wrote from roughly 9:00am to 1:00pm and once said, “the big problem for writers who don’t earn enough to be able to write full time is that they write in their spare time, in other words when they are tired. This is literature produced by tired writers.”

This message resonates with the filmmaker and dangerous assignment expert, Dirk Collins. Dirk travels 240 days a year, and in the past often struggled to exercise in nature in some settings. Now, no matter where he is with the exception of Everest, he’ll get out for a run. When he’s home he builds perfect work days that see him running or hiking in the morning and biking or skiing in the afternoon, with a solid work session sandwiched in between. In summer, he opens his laptop on his front porch so he can watch 20 species of songbird hit his feeders. Those perfect days don’t always happen, but exercise in nature is always on the menu. “Even an hour is worth it,” says Dirk. “Your entire day is more productive. Not just your work but your personal life too. You come back with a more creative mindset ready to solve problems.”    

Photograph Brittany Mumma
"I'm lucky in that most of my projects take place in locations where exercise is built into the assignment." —Dirk Collins

These truths were old even for our grandparents’ generation. Nearly a century ago, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung theorized that many of modernity’s psychological ills were rooted in a lack of connection to nature, of which, despite our phones and hairdos, humans are an eating, drinking, moving, sleeping, and fornicating part. From Jung’s writings, a school of ecopsychology was formed and from that a tool called nature therapy. 

The idea with nature therapy is to bring reverence for nature into daily life while recognizing that we are nature. The goal isn’t just to get outside—that trivializes nature. The goal is to be outside. It’s casual soft fascination taken to a transcendent level. Some Jungians describe an eden-like dream state with you as both the witness and, because you are nature too, the subject. It gets heady, but you know the feeling. Soft fascination is most profound for me in the fall as I walk silently beneath tall pines with a wooden hunting bow in my hand, aware of everything and nothing. The moments of effortless action in skiing and cycling or even walking can also put me in that near dream state. Jungians talked of “flow” long before outdoor athletes did.   

The Jungians weren’t the first. Sean Crotty is a Utah backcountry skier, therapist, and doctoral candidate who sees connections between Jung and indigenous peoples worldwide. Because we spend so much time inside boxes, Crotty says, immersion in nature can alter consciousness in a similar way to psychedelic fungi, a sweat lodge, or a cold plunge in an ice covered lake—all indigenous traditions. In breaking from the daily grind, we begin to see ourselves within the context of landscape time, not that rush of digital stimuli that fries the circuits. “This is not theoretical,” says Crotty “exercise in nature is inherently mind altering. But if you aren’t out in the elements it’s hard to come to these conclusions.” 

The Lakota Sioux see a more spiritual path in nature known as ‘Chanku Luta,’ or ‘walking the red road.’ It is not something you buy at the pharmacy.    

So what’s the prescription? With nature therapy there are no set rules. Rules imply goals and goals imply a reward. Crotty sees analogs in indigenous relationships with the land where nature has the power to strike you down as much as lift you up. 

To the Lakota Sioux who have studied their people’s ancient beliefs, it’s the gray, muddled world of offices, commerce, and greed that is an alternate reality. They call this “Chanku Sapa,” or the black road. But they also see a more spiritual path in nature known as “Chanku Luta,” or “walking the red road.” It is not something you buy at the pharmacy.    

With deference to indigenous spirituality, Crotty takes groups of patients into the backcountry to invoke a green exercise response. They hike 10 miles and then sit in a circle and talk. Or maybe they just stroll through a city park. There’s no right or wrong dose. On these outings, Crotty advocates harmony over balance. Balance is a prescription. Harmony happens when you aren’t looking for a payout. “In one African tradition, tribal members pour milk into the river,” says Crotty. “The milk is offered in a similar way that we offer milk to infants as an act of nourishment. Water is known as a living being that we are in relation with. They’re nurturing the river which nurtures the land which nurtures the people. That’s harmony. Gulping down a burrito and hammering out a ride or a run with headphones on is not.”              

Photograph Courtesy Sean Crotty
"One lesson from indigenous people is to appreciate what’s under your feet." —Sean Crotty.
Photograph Courtesy Sean Crotty
"The natural world forces a sense of autonomy." —Sean Crotty

In keeping with that sentiment, this essay is also not a prescription. I’ve seen exercise addictions tear apart families. Nature immersion seems to have no negative equivalent, but then again, we don’t have equal access to nature. Telling a kid in the Bronx to go bathe in a forest isn’t particularly helpful. 

But we muddle on. We used to know things and we know things still. What we feel when we move through the natural world is not hedonism, it’s not a cheap thrill, it’s what it means to live on this planet at this moment in time. 

Only Solutions is written by Marc Peruzzi for Hence’s creative community. It covers topics that matter like how we find purpose, why creativity and mental health are so dependent on exercise in the natural world, and, next time, how work creates value in an age of fast fashion, AI generated plagiarism, and “influence.”