There are times when all of us, at some point, experience a mild bout of “the blues.” Either it’s circumstantial —there is something worrisome going on in our life— or it’s just the normal ebb and flow of mood. If you’re a woman, it can be hormonal or it can be the result of poor sleep or nutrition. Even mild depression can be downright painful. You feel the ache of listlessness and hopelessness, even when you know logically your life is generally good and comfortable. That’s when it’s especially bad, perhaps because you can’t even find a good reason why you’re feeling down. If there was something you could fix, you’d fix it. Instead, you’re just not happy and you’re not sure why.
I have observed throughout my life that certain activities make me feel better and even cure me of the occasional blues. One of the activities that seem to be most reliable in making me feel better instantly is exercising outside in a nature place, preferably alone. The mental health benefits of this are not just anecdotal, there are studies that point to the idea that exercising in an outdoor, natural setting is far more effective in improving mood than exercising indoors.
The reason I recommend exercising alone in nature to cure blues is that it’s contemplative, meaning that it allows your mind to wander to how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking—in the moment, as it relates to your environment. You need not worry about what another person is experiencing, how fast they’re walking, or what they think of what you’re telling them. Solitary, contemplative time in nature, allows you to be as present in the moment as you possibly can be, and affords you the space to work through problems and emotions. I have had many instances of creative insight and even a surge of ideas and motivation during solitary hikes, but not so much when I’ve been with others. Maybe the conversation always gets in the way, or maybe my mind is better at surging creativity when I’m giving it the space to do so.
Studies have also concluded that vigorous exercise in bright light (such as sunlight) increases mental well-being by increasing seratonin levels in the brain. These chemicals give us a “feel good” boost, and as an exercise enthusiast will tell you, there’s nothing like a good workout to put you in a great mood all day. Combining vigorous exercise with time outdoors in nature is the ultimate natural remedy for a mild cause of the blues.
This is a particularly important point for seasonal depression, or the “winter blues.” When it’s cold and blustery outside, the last thing we want to do is go out there to exercise, but this is precisely when it’s most beneficial, especially on sunny days. Where I live near Denver, Colorado, I am no more than a 30 minute drive from beautiful hiking trails that meander through pine forests and rock formations. Even in winter, after a snowfall, so many people hike that the trails are snow-packed and completely walkable.
In modern culture we spend so much of our time indoors, in front of one screen or another (a computer, a television, a smartphone), and this is doing nothing for our emotional, physical or spiritual health. We need to connect – to our bodies, our spirit, other beings, nature—in order to experience the totality of who we are and our place on earth. Nature has already provided us with the means to being and feeling healthy and happy, we just need to rediscover those gifts.
Are there places near where you live or work that you can exercise in a natural setting? If so, set aside at least three days this week to doing so: to greet the day with a sunrise jog, to contemplate the day with a walk at sunset, and to cap the workweek with a long and physically invigorating amble among the trees, birds and open sky.