Call it Vitamin N, for nature.
There’s ample evidence that outdoor fitness pursuits can boost your health. Nature can both zap stress and feelings of anxiety, inducing mental calm and pushing you to work out harder.
Just five minutes outside can prompt positive changes in well-being, researchers from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom reported in 2010 after reviewing studies involving more than 1,250 individuals.
A 2012 study found that outdoor exercise can boost a person’s mood 50 percent more than the same routine in a gym.
“I wasn’t surprised by the findings that exercise in natural environments is good for your mental health, but I was surprised by just how much better it is for your mental health to exercise in a green place like a forest, than in other places like the gym,” lead author Richard Mitchell of the University of Glasgow told The Telegraph.
A deeper immersion into nature — through hiking, camping, rafting and other activities — is often called wilderness therapy, and it’s used all over the world to help troubled teens, individuals with mental illness or anyone seeking a break from the daily grind.
Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of the green spaces around you, even if it’s just your backyard or a neighborhood park. The warm weather and long days also offer opportunities for daydreaming about far-off adventures and bucket list items.
To help you add items to your “must-do” healthy travel list, click through the slideshow above. Below, check out the health benefits of favorite summer activities.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity,” famed conversationist John Muir wrote.
And he’s right.
More than 34 million Americans hiked in 2013, according to one survey. While hitting the trails, participants can burn up to 530 calories per hour, depending on your speed and the weight of your pack. Plus, trail trekking acts as a seriously leg-strengthening aerobic workout.
“When you hike, you hit your body from lots of different angles and engage muscle groups you may miss at the gym, like the back, outer thighs and deep core muscles,” Steve Silberberg, founder of Fitpacking, an outfitter in Hull, Massachusetts, told Health.com. Add in the mind-body boost mentioned above, and you’re in for one healthy day.
More good news: Hitting the water is easier than ever thanks to a slew of new urban kayaking companies, which allow water lovers to rent the boats for a few hours or take guided tours, no vacation time required.
If you are out in the ocean, as many of the dream kayak trips above are, you’ll gain additional health benefits. Some researchers call open water’s effect on humans the “blue mind effect,” which means that water has mental health healing power and the ability to induce a “mild meditative state.”
Whether you’re spinning around your hometown or touring a new area, cycling can torch serious calories — 544 calories in one hour for a 150-pound person pedaling 10 to 12 miles per hour, according to Bicycling magazine.
Biking is also one of the best ways to explore new surroundings on your summer vacation. Plus, as it’s a low-impact exercise, cycling makes for a friendly fitness endeavor for a variety of ages and abilities.
Isn’t it time you felt the good kind of stress?
Whitewater rafting and other adventure sports can spike your body’s levels of adrenaline, researchers from Texas A&M University found. Although stress hormones coursing through your veins aren’t typically thought to be healthy, when your adrenaline spikes from fun, it can have total-body benefits.
Careening down an incline atop a mountain bike can provide an adrenaline rush with payoffs away from the trail, just like rafting.
Plus, “adults who exercise display sharper memory skills, higher concentration levels, more fluid thinking and greater problem-solving ability than those who are sedentary,” Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told Bicycling.
There’s a reason therapeutic riding programs are popular: Interacting with horses can do wonders for one’s health.
Although the horse is getting most of the exercise, riding burns calories for humans, too — about 200 per hour, researchers from Texas A&M found after analyzing physiological markers in 20 riders. Study author Dennis Sigler, Ph.D., said these results were promising.
“Some have joints that just can’t stand a jog, but if they can ride a horse and burn 400 calories a day, that’s significant,” he said in a press release. “Horseback riding is also an excellent way to beat childhood obesity. And we haven’t even measured the therapeutic aspect of horseback riding.”
Experience that “blue mind effect” with stand-up paddle boarding, nicknamed SUP.
“Paddle boarding is like walking on water. Standing atop a board in the middle of the ocean, you see everything from sea life to the coastline and across the channel,” champion surfer Laird Hailton told Men’s Journal. “Having that sweeping expanse in front of you, you just want to go exploring.”
Plus, it’s a serious balance challenge and a tough core workout that can scorch a few hundred calories per hour (or more, if you’re SUP-ing in choppy water or taking a popular SUP yoga or bootcamp class).
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Kick off a few hundred calories an hour — and explore life under the sea — with snorkeling this summer.
You will get a great total-body workout and be able to observe marine life as it floats by. Just don’t forget to traverse the seas with an experienced diver for safety’s sake.