Does running in nature make you happier

Where you live has a big effect on where you decide to go run. If you live in the middle of downtown Chicago, you may be running down the Riverwalk, as I saw people when I made a trip to Chicago. 

Where you live has a big effect on where you decide to go run. If you live in the middle of downtown Chicago, you may be running down the Riverwalk, as I saw people when I made a trip to Chicago. Or if you live in the suburbs, you may be pounding the pavement down random little streets. If you live in the country, well, you may just take that one road that you have all the way to the Walmart. Whatever the case may be, we often find ourselves pounding the pavement. But there’s always the other option of going and hitting the trails. And I wondered beyond the physical benefits, does running in nature make us happier?

If you haven’t been with me here on the channel before, I’m Jesse Funk. This is a show I call Runner’s High, where we talk about everything running; from how to train to whether running makes you happier, to what to do if you got to lose a sock in the woods, if you know what I mean. In any case, if you’re into running, you should hit that subscribe button, stick around with me for more episodes every Tuesday and Thursday. So, I’ve thought about this a lot recently as I just completed a race that was my first kind of cross country style race in I don’t know how many years, and I had a lot of fun doing it. It made me realize how much I missed the -- just experience of not being on a road race, not doing a track style race at all. And I wondered, in general, does running in nature make us happier?

I recalled a study that basically said, people that spend time in green spaces tend to report scores of higher happiness. Now, happiness is kind of hard to define. And in general, we may actually be looking more for contentment than that, like, simple bubbly sense of I’m happy right in this moment. In either case, because I know if you spend more time in green spaces, theoretically, you’re happier, I wonder does that mean we need to go sit and meditate and be a monk in the woods? Or can we go run and get this benefit? Now you may be skeptical about this topic, you may be wondering, why are we even talking about this. But let’s think about this for just a second.

Okay. So, maybe you live in a high rise in, like I said, downtown Chicago or some other very city-like city and don’t live in the suburbs like I do. And in that case, I would suggest many, many people or people you probably know do this and bring things like this guy into your house. You know, you’re trying to bring nature indoors. And you know, there’s a lot of people that say, oh, the plants oxygenate the room and they make us happier, or they make it a better environment for us to live.

Well, I think we’ve shown conclusively through enough studies that the plants don’t really provide more oxygen. But there’s some like subtle, maybe woo-woo benefit we’re after there, right? Where it’s like, hey, there’s this plant and it’s near me and now I’m happier because I’ve got this green little guy, and it’s going to help me out. So, that’s where this idea comes from, right?

And then here in the suburbs, we’ve got yards we have to take care of and people do landscaping and plant flowers and do this whole thing that are our whole controlling nature kind of situation, but we still want it around us. So, when we go out and we run on the trails, we can go back to that study that says hey, if you spend more time in green space, you’re happier. That’s great. But like, what’s going on? Has there been anybody that’s done any other studies, any kind of situations where we can actually link what’s going on in the woods, in the forest to our actual mental state?

Now, I actually found a few different studies, and leave it up to none other than the Japanese to be doing these studies, who seem to be at least anecdotally, interested in the link between man-nature or machine-urbanization, just the whole thing. But this first study I found suggests that the sense from the forest, the smells of the forest actually can affect our stress levels and reduce our stress levels. Now if you’re saying to me, Jessie, that doesn’t mean you’re happier.

That’s true. I guess you could be less stressed and not happy. But if you think about happiness in terms of contentment, as in right now, I’m chilling. I’m doing good. What does that mean? Like, your stress levels are reduced, there’s nothing worrying you. So, if you’re getting this kind of weird natural aroma therapy from the forest, and it’s reducing your stress levels, I would suggest that means that your happiness is going up. So, there is some kind of efficacy here, at least it seems that way from this study, that the smells of the forest are actually contributing to lower stress levels.

But that isn’t the only Japanese study that I found in this subject. A second Japanese study that I found, actually went to figure out, is there any kind of efficacy into the forest specifically. So, we know those smells, okay, they affect us. But is there any other physiological impact that the forest is doing? And maybe it’s simply just that we’re getting out and exercising. Well, this group of researchers actually took two groups, had been walked for two hours. One of them was in a city environment and one of them was in a forest environment. So, we’re both going out and walking for two hours. I don’t know whether they controlled for speeds and that kind of thing. But you would think in aggregate that shouldn’t be too much of an issue if they’ve got a large enough sample size.

What they found was that the group they walked in the forest compared to the group that walked in the city environment actually had reduced blood pressure. That may go along with the smells. Maybe there’s a correlation there that the scents are having some kind of effect, and then that’s, in turn, having the effect of reducing blood pressure. I can’t say that definitively. But I think this is pointing towards the evidence that being in nature does, in fact, reduce our stress levels, have some kind of physiological impact on us, and that, in turn, basically makes us happier or more content. Beyond the research, I would actually suggest that going and doing something different or novel is a great way to boost your happiness levels.

We are creative explorers by nature. Us as humans like to do new things. So, when you go explore a new trail, explore a new area, you take that on your run, you forget about how fast you’re going, you just go, I’m just going to go run through the woods and be like a kid on an adventure. Like, that’s going to boost your happiness levels just doing that. Regardless of what the studies are saying and how they’re possibly going to reduce your stress and in turn, increase happiness levels, just taking that adventure out that should help boost your happiness levels as well.

If you’re interested in trail running, you want to check out more about it, The Trail Runner’s Companion here is a book you should check out. Actually, as I’m shooting this video, I haven’t interviewed her yet. But by the time this video is out, I will have interviewed her and the episode will be out. Sarah Lavender Smith, the author of this book, it’s going to be on the Smart Athlete Podcast. So, we’ll try to come back and make sure we link to that at the end of this episode.

So, you can check that out, my interview with her if you want to know more about trail running, how she converted over from marathoner into trail runner and that kind of transition that took place in her life. And then who knows what else I’m going to talk to her about because I haven’t done it yet. So, that should be coming up here on the screen shortly. As always, subscribe, stick around for more episodes of the show and awesome interviews like that Smart Athlete Podcast with Sarah. And I’ll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.


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