In the midst of a brutal Adirondack winter, the thought of taking a beach vacation and lounging on the warm sand brings happiness and comfort. But what is the science behind it? Does resting under the sun bring the same level of mental well-being as attending a volleyball game?
A Canadian study investigated these questions and found that for children “Each hour spent outdoors each day was associated with a 31% lower likelihood of reporting peer relationship issues and a 22% lower likelihood of reporting mental health difficulties.” Von Beyer et al. also found that spending more time outdoors in adults was associated with fewer symptoms of depression.
There is a growing body of research showing that spending more time outdoors is associated with improved mental well-being in the adult population. Urban planners encourage green spaces in the built environment, recognizing that green spaces can relieve stress and reduce mental fatigue.
A US study examined the population-related effects of green spaces and mental health. It was found that higher proportions of green space in neighborhoods were associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. Additional time children spent outdoors was associated with decreases in attention-deficit hyperactivity symptoms and improvements in cognition and improvements in cognition and attention.
Even as a child, playing outside was part of our lifestyle. There is a connection between the two and it is unclear what effect these memories have on preparing us to engage in physical activity when we are outdoors. Nature certainly offers an inviting mix of indoor inactivity and outdoor recreation, especially in the North Country where there are so many breathtakingly beautiful lakes and mountains. Intuitively, time spent outdoors is positively correlated with an increase in so-called moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in the young population. For every hour kids spend outdoors, there are an additional 7 minutes to engage in MVPA. Furthermore, this increase in MVPA is associated with a decrease in anxiety and depressive symptoms. It’s also linked to improvements in self-esteem and mental health in general. This could be mediated by the positive effects of outdoor activities that being outdoors can promote.
It is likely that sedentary outdoor activities do not improve mental well-being as much as outdoor exercise and sports. In addition, it’s also possible that the outdoor activities that teens are most engaged in, such as studying, playing with mobile devices, or sitting with friends, do not promote mental well-being in the same way as physical activities. Even if you engage in physical activity or play a sport, it’s possible that being outdoors in an urban environment, with all its acoustic distractions and stressors, will mitigate the exercise-related benefits of being outdoors in a rural and more peaceful environment.
How MVPA positively affects mental health is not yet known. One possibility is thought to be that physical activity serves as a distraction that provides temporary respite from life stressors. In fact, one evidence-based treatment is dialectical behavior therapy, which can help people with all psychiatric diagnoses to manage stress. Originally designed as an intervention for people suffering from borderline personality and struggling with severe psychological pain, psychological exercises, including distraction, can help support a calmer and less frenetic response to external stressors. Certainly, outdoor exercise and sports can temporarily improve mindfulness and the ability to focus during a competitive athletic game. Historically, enkephalins and endorphins and other chemicals released during strenuous exercise have been thought to have a modulating or mediating effect on mood regulation. However, the details of this interaction are largely unknown and conjectured. A 2021 review article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences hypothesized that exercise-triggered extracellular vesicle release has antidepressant effects. Finally, it has been known for some time that sedentary lifestyle is a behavior that leads to depression.
Regular physical activity can not only reduce depression, but also reduce the propensity to develop metabolic, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative chronic age-related diseases.
dr Vance Jackson, a professor of psychology at Paul Smith’s College, states that more research needs to be done to identify the role of exercise and sport in improving subjective well-being and psychological well-being. The role of the pandemic in causing anxiety and depression still requires both clinical and physiological data to more accurately identify what is association and what is causal. He notes that anecdotal evidence supports increases in depression and anxiety, which may stem from the alienation and isolation that such a global health crisis has caused. He notes that people generally feel better and more resilient when they spend time in the beautiful natural surroundings of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and Tupper Lake. However, understanding the role of outdoor aesthetics and years of exercise is still a challenge and an area ripe for detailed physiological and psychological research.
Unlike antidepressant interventions, where each antidepressant offers at most a 70% efficacy rate — and can often be accompanied by side effects ranging from stomach upset, headache, agitation, and paradoxically increased depression and suicidal behavior — physical exercise, on the other hand, generally will not accompanied by side effects unless an individual has an underlying physical condition that makes it physiologically impossible for them to participate safely.
Unlike physical activity, spending time outdoors can be spiritually fulfilling. Being surrounded by gorgeous vistas and the effects of the Adirondack mountains and lakes can be a lot more emotionally soothing than spending time outdoors on a beautiful day in Midtown Manhattan. Surrounding traffic and the sounds of sirens and horns can induce anxiety. Outdoor sports can motivate participants and help them connect with other team members. This bond and focus on being part of a team can help mitigate the development of anxiety and depression and even give life meaning. Tolstoy wrote at the height of his success “The confession” and discussed how, despite his literary success, supportive marriage, wealth, and connections to a large social system, he found life meaningless and this caused him great psychological pain. Exercise, on the other hand, can, albeit temporarily, discourage a person from being overly cognitive and thoughtful. While understanding their behaviors and moods can be helpful, overexposure to deep introspection can potentially lead a person to become even more depressed. Engaging in activities that help alleviate loneliness can be life-saving. The feeling of alienation is not limited to specific demographic groups. Young people during the pandemic described feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, the same symptoms are present in all demographics and ages, and this has shown the importance of being around people. Humans are pack animals, and being separated from friends and family and living in isolation can implode emotionally. Elderly citizens who have been separated from their children, grandchildren and friends during the pandemic have left this population deeply alone and saddened.
A tool commonly used in therapy, asking a person to focus on a beautiful view, such as the beach or a waterfall, can help reset one’s mood barometer and achieve peace and comfort. Literally being outdoors on a beach or by a waterfall can induce a sense of peace and tranquility on its own, and the impact of such an environment on any individual can be extremely powerful. The release of extracellular vesicles could potentially be a biomarker for their effect in relieving depression. Importantly, this research shows promise. However, the exact mechanism by which physical activity promotes well-being and acts as an antidepressant is not fully understood. However, it is believed that exercise could affect the brain at a molecular and structural level. It has been hypothesized that the release of chemicals known as cytokines may play a role in the formation of new nerve cells and in the progressive development of neural components known as dendrites and synapses. Dendrites look like microscopic deer antlers and receive the signal from other nerve cells to fire off an electrical charge. This electrical charge is propagated along the nerve cell, where it fuses with another dendritic junction, resulting in the firing of another nerve cell. This ongoing process enables brain cell to brain cell communication. Uncertainty about exactly how secreted extracellular proteins affect nerve communication and growth may explain why physical activity prescriptions worldwide are not reflecting the large number of depressed people around the world that has increased during the pandemic.
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