Green exercise and wellbeing: make the most of campus!

By Dr Megan Hurst

As part of the Psychology Student Experience team’s wellbeing events during the assessment period, we’ve had several nature walks, exploring the many walking routes on the beautiful University of Sussex campus.

In case you missed them, here’s a summary by Dr. Megan Hurst on the benefits of getting some exercise in natural environments during the assessment period.

Recharge your batteries

Green exercise might be particularly helpful if you’re currently studying and revising hard. This kind of focus is referred to as ‘directed attention’, and it takes cognitive energy to maintain it. Attention restoration theory (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989) suggests that green exercise encourages ‘soft fascination’ – a form of involuntary attention which is not so draining. Natural environments with greater biodiversity may be particularly associated with these feelings of restoration (Marselle et al., 2016).

Boost this benefit: aim to walk in areas with lots of different plants (and animals!). You can also purposefully extend your attention outside of your body while you are exercising – what can you see around you? You might find the woodland portion of the boundary walk (near the Falmer Sports Complex) a particularly nice place to do this.

Focus on feeling

One of the great things about having a campus in the South Downs is the incredible landscape, which sometimes comes with some impressive hills to climb, or tree roots to clamber over. The challenges posed by the outdoors can help us to focus on our experience within our bodies and how they feel, rather than how they look. Lots of my research investigates how focusing on appearance in exercise settings can have negative consequences for how we feel about ourselves (e.g., Hurst et al., 2017). Avoiding this appearance focus can be easier away from classic exercise environments, like gyms or fitness centres (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008).

Woodland in the South Downs

Boost this benefit: as you are walking, focus on how your body feels, and what you are experiencing right now. You might notice and enjoy the sun on your skin (if you’re lucky!), the burning in your legs or the rasp of your breath as you climb a hill. There’s a good one at the north end of campus on the Boundary walk for just this experience!

Master the challenge

The ecological dynamics approach to green exercise (Brymer et al., 2014) suggests that exercise in natural environments is good for us because of what these environments encourage. Natural surroundings provide more opportunities to engage in challenges (like those hills we mentioned earlier!) and in simple, enjoyable activities. Interviews with recreational road cyclists highlight the ‘uncomplicated joy’ experience by tackling physical challenges with nature as a backdrop (Glackin & Beale, 2018).

Boost this benefit: Take a moment to appreciate the view, and what you’ve achieved when you reach the top of a hill – like the beautiful view out over Stanmer Park on the Boundary Walk. Or indulge your inner child by running down the hill in the woods at the northeast end of campus – wheee!

Fulking Hill in the South Downs

Finally…

Research suggests that just 10 minutes of green (vs. indoor) exercise can be beneficial for wellbeing (Focht, 2009), so it is worth taking even a short break outside while you’re revising in the assessment period, or if you’re one of our PGT students writing up your dissertation over the summer.

You can see more information about walking and running routes on campus here.

Dr. Megan Hurst is a Lecturer in Social Psychology and module leader for the final year option “Psychology of Exercise and Wellbeing”. Outside of work, Megan enjoys walking in the South Downs, and further afield, tackling long distance routes like Hadrian’s Wall Path and classic challenges like the Lyke Wake Walk.

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