Sure, a brisk run or energetic walk through a lush green landscape is more pleasant than plodding along on a gym treadmill or slogging through dirty city streets. But recent studies are producing evidence that exercising in serene surroundings is scientifically better for you as well.
For example, Stanford University scientists let two groups of subjects loose for a 90-minute walk in either a natural or an urban setting and found that being active in nature headed off the churning of negative thoughts—a cycle called rumination. MRI scans of the nature-goers’ brains even showed reduced brain activity linked to mental illness; city exercisers got no such benefits.
“In our evolutionary history, our response to natural landscapes allowed us to look out for predators, find sources of water, etc., so interacting with these landscapes now has an automatic salutary effect on us,” says study author Greg Bratman.
Exercising in nature may also boost the immune system by switching our mood into “rest and digest”mode—the opposite of the fight-or-flight response—says a University of Illinois survey of hundreds of studies on the subject, which showed that feeling safe and relaxed helps the body shuttle resources toward the immune system.