Life Wellbeing Outdoor exercise is great for mood, mind and motivation, but there’s a COVID catch
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Outdoor exercise is great for mood, mind and motivation, but there’s a COVID catch

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A new study has revealed the complex psychology of people living and exercising during COVID-19 lockdown.

The research, from the University of Otago, found that people who exercised outdoors, or “in nature”, were more “intrinsically” motivated than those exercising indoors. This was supported by previous research and is somewhat intuitive.

Intrinsic motivation is where you engage in an activity for the pleasure of being there, rather than having a self-focused goal, such as losing weight or looking good – or exercising because there’s some kind of pressure for you to do it.

Intrinsic motivation is ordinarily linked to psychological wellbeing – but there was a catch because of COVID-19.

The expected psychological benefits of being outdoors were somewhat flattened by the anxiety, even fear of suddenly being in sudden close proximity to strangers.

Outdoor exercise has a host of psychological benefits. Photo: Getty

The net result: weekly physical activity, done at home or in a nature setting, appeared to equally protect people from psychological distress, and advance their wellbeing.

In COVID-free times, that probably wouldn’t be the case.

What was the study?

Researchers from the Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, recruited a sample of New Zealanders, aged 18 to 81, to log their exercise and wellbeing over eight days, between the second and third week of April 2020.

New Zealand was in Stage 4 lockdown at that time, and it was still a new experience.

People were allowed outdoors to exercise without restriction (compared to the experience in Melbourne where, for four months, residents were restricted to one hour of outdoors exercise a day).

However, NZ residents were ordered to stay in their own neighbourhoods.

The study results came from 750 participants – average age 43, mostly female, and nine out of 10 were employed.

Intrinsic motivation undercut by anxiety

Dr Matthew Jenkins, is an Otago research fellow and leader of the study. In a phone interview, he told The New Daily:

“Exercise outdoors and in nature was linked to intrinsic motivation, which is a very positive form of motivation because it comes from within, rather than external sources.

“People exercising at home were driven by more “ego-centred” reasons. There’s this idea that if you’re exercising out in nature, you’re less focused on yourself.”

But in lockdown, Dr Jenkins said, there was “a change in context”: living in a room or a house all day, day after day, the opportunity to go outdoors would be a particularly significant boost, or so one would think.

“We expected being in nature would have a different effect on wellbeing but it didn’t,” said Dr Jenkins.

The expectation was that exercising in nature would provide a greater protection from psychological distress, and a boost to wellbeing. But, in the pandemic, the wellbeing benefits of exercise were about equal, no matter where it occurred.

Dr Jenkins has an explanation for this:

“I have access to this fantastic trail, but it’s quite narrow. So you end up with people doing an awkward shuffle around one another as they’re trying to maintain distance,” he said.

And with that awkward shuffle comes anxiety. Are these people sick? Will I become sick too? Did we stay far enough apart?

In other words, the psychological gains you might ordinarily have been reduced by simply running into people.

“It’s speculation,” he said. “But I think that’s what’s happened.”

A 2010 study found that just a short burst of exercise in a park, on a nature trail, or other green space will improve one’s mood and sense of personal well-being.

A 2019 study from the University of Michigan found that found taking at least twenty minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels.

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