Get Moving

virgin river rim trail

view from the Virgin River Rim Trail

In past weeks I’ve talked about a number of strategies for nourishing yourself and finding greater peace and happiness in your life. These are practices such as breathing, mindfulness, savoring and meditation—practices for quieting yourself and connecting more deeply with your inner self. And now I want to shift gears to strategies that require you to get moving. In this post, I’ll talk about the science behind spending time in nature, getting exercise and building fun and recreation as well as discovering the joy of flow.

The Healing Effects of Nature

One way to get moving that leads to greater fulfillment and joy is spending time in nature. This is intuitive. Most of us like to spend time in nature. And there is also a lot of science to back up its importance.

A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2009 found that people who live within a kilometer of a park or wooded area are less likely to feel anxious or depressed. Other studies show that just 20 minutes a day in a vegetation-rich setting improves vitality and emotional strength as well as memory and cognitive functioning.

In May 2013 more than 10,000 Canadians participated in a “30×30 nature challenge.” They were instructed to spend 30 minutes in nature every day for 30 days. By the end of the study these people reported significant increases in their sense of well-being, more energy, less stress and negativity, and fewer sleep disturbances. Furthermore, they felt more productive on the job and happier.

Why is Nature so Healing?

I think there are a number of reasons it is so good to be out of doors and in nature. Going outside shifts your focus and mental energy. It is a break from your usual routine that allows your mind to relax and take in new sights and sounds. Another reason is that the exercise associated with being outdoors is good for the mind and body. Another are the benefits that come from taking in sunlight. A lesser-known reason is that we take in phytoncides when in nature. These are airborne chemicals which plants emit to protect themselves from rotting and insects. Scientists believe that these little particles may also be good for us humans.

Neurological Benefits of Nature

In a fascinating study, researchers from the University of Edinburgh attached a portable EEG device to measure brain waves to the heads of 12 healthy young adults. These young people walked for about a mile and a half through three distinctly different areas of Edinburgh: a shopping district, a park-like green space, and a busy commercial district. The scientists then analyzed the brain wave records of these volunteers and found that they had lower levels of arousal and a greater sense of calm when in the green space as opposed to the shopping district or commercial business district.

Many other studies have found similar results. They show that there are benefits not only being in nature but seeing pictures of nature. Some studies show that even prisoners living in solitary confinement or maximum-security penitentiaries experience less anger, stress, depression and are less prone to violence if they are exposed to images (not the real thing but images) of landscapes, glaciers, forests, and waterfalls daily.

So, the take away is to get moving, particularly by getting out into nature. Even a 20-minute walk through a park will boost your happiness and improve your mental and physical health. Sometimes it is hard to get to a green space. So know that just being out doors (or even looking at beautiful scenes of the great outdoors) is good for your mental health and happiness.

The Benefits of Exercise

Related to getting out of doors in order to nourish your soul is exercise, moving your body. Many studies have proven a link between physical activity and risk for developing depression and anxiety. People who are more active are less likely to become depressed. But less well-known are studies related to the question of the relationship between exercise and happiness.

So researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed multiple studies, representing more than 500,000 people to understand the relationship between exercise and happiness. They found 23 relevant studies going back to 1980 which included people ranging in age from teens to very old and covering a broad range of ethnic and socioeconomic groups. According to the Michigan researchers, most of these studies found a strong link between exercise and happiness. Although the type of exercise did not really matter, more activity led to greater happiness.

Other studies have proven this link. One study, led by Harvard researchers and reported in the June 2017 Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that feelings of well-being were linked to higher levels of physical activity among 10,000 adults over age 50.

Exercise (getting up and moving) has many positive effects on the mind and body. It increases endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. It also lowers the bad hormone cortisol which lowers our risk for anxiety and depression.

Start Small

And the good news is that exercise does not have to be high intensity to make a difference. The Department of Health and Human Services states that we need between 30 and 60 minutes of moderate exercise three to five days a week to get real mental health benefits. This can include walking, running, swimming, tennis, weight lifting or most any exercise that stresses your body.
If you have trouble with exercise, make it okay to start small. I recently worked with a depressed woman who also suffered from physical obesity, diabetes and heart disease. My instruction to her was to go outside and walk to the end of the block and back, a round trip of no more than 10 minutes, even at her slow pace. She began to feel better as she did so not only because she was walking, but from the sunlight and connecting with her neighbors. She was soon walking much longer distances and feeling better. The important thing is to get your body moving. More movement is correlated with happiness. Science also tells us that being out of doors as we exercise has some benefits over indoors. And many people benefit more from exercising with a partner or in a group.

Get Moving Through Recreation and Play

Another strategy is to engage in hobbies, recreation and play. We practice becoming (in other words, nourishing our souls) as we do things we enjoy. People who engage in regular hobbies or recreation are happier than people who do not. And, by the way, I’m not talking about watching tv or playing video games. I’m talking about being active in something that totally engages the mind and body and helps you let go of stress and self-concern.

This can include such things as participating in a sport, fishing, hiking, cooking, sewing, woodworking or rebuilding old cars. The list goes on and on. It is doing things which you consider pleasurable. I look back at my life and know that the eras in which I was happiest are when I was involved in such activities.

There was a time when my life was all work and no play. I knew something was wrong when my kids, at a family gathering, told their aunts and uncles and cousins that my favorite hobby was cleaning the garage and taking an occasional nap. So, I decided to become more active. My overall happiness got a bump when I joined a trail running club. I thoroughly enjoyed our Saturday morning races. I also enjoy singing and have found great happiness in family sing-alongs and also my barbershop chorus and cowboy band. To be happy you have to find something that you love to do and make it a regular part of your life.


Let me also say that these activities are best performed and enjoyed when we get into a state of flow. You’ve probably heard that term. It was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 as he studied artists that got so immersed in their work that they’d disregard their need to food, water or sleep.

Flow or being in the zone is a state of intense concentration in the present moment and in which you are so engrossed in an activity that you lose all track of time or consciousness of self. The experience is powerfully and intrinsically rewarding and brings about deep feelings of enjoyment that leads to happiness in the long-run. Studies have found a positive relationship between flow and happiness.

What About You?

All of the strategies—getting out doors, engaging in exercise and finding recreation and play—engage the body in healthful and fulfilling ways. Learning to do this bring greater happiness and joy to your life.

So I want to encourage you to think about activities that you love or perhaps could potentially love if you spent more time at them. Make a plan to include them in your schedule on a regular basis. If you’re not sure what those activities may be, then give yourself permission to experiment. You’re going to increase your happiness as you get moving by making more time to be outdoors and engage in hobbies, recreation and play.



  1. Ron Leckie

    Thank you so much Roger…just what I needed to hear!

    • Roger Allen

      Thanks, Ron. I’m glad to hear it. Let’s keep moving.


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