Heart Foundation highlights mental health benefits of exercise

diabetes: three women exercising in a park

This Mental Health Week, the Heart Foundation is highlighting the wider health benefits of nature-based physical activity, including hiking and bushwalking among other activities.

National Heart Foundation CEO, Mary Barry, says aside from significantly benefiting cardiovascular health, enjoying a walk in the great outdoors may also boost mental health and emotion well-being.

“A recent Stanford University study in the United States has found tangible evidence that walking in nature can lead to a lower risk of depression,” she says.

“While walking 30 minutes or more a day can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as half, we now have evidence of how this may potentially benefit mental health and emotional well-being as well.

“The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression.

“In a highly urbanised society like Australia, these results suggest that accessible natural areas, even within built up urban areas, that encourage physical activity, will help deliver better overall health outcomes.”

In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway.

Researchers found neural activity in a region of the brain associated with negative emotions and thoughts, decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban setting.

Barry says getting out and enjoying the best that nature has to offer is a healthy, stimulating and cost-effective way of incorporating more physical activity into busy, everyday lives.

“With two out of three Australians (66.9%) aged 15 years and over doing very little or no exercise, walking offers a healthy, fun and best of all, free alternative,” she says.

She says practical, achievable initiatives to encourage Australians to be more physically active are a focus of the Heart Foundation’s advocacy for a comprehensive, funded National Physical Activity Action Plan.

“Simply put, we need to get Australians of all ages and backgrounds moving more and sitting less, sooner rather than later.”

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