Mental health and outdoor exercise


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We’ve all experienced it; those moments of clarity when you’re out on the trail. Your heart is pumping a little faster, you’re breathing a little heavier, and your muscles are letting you know they’re working harder. But your brain is working too. It’s amazing how many great ideas you get, and how many problems you solve. (Do yourself a favor and write them down, or use the voice recorder function on your cell phone. Much like dreams, you’ll forget them soon. I’ve been there.) Or maybe you’re just thinking about work, a project you need to work, or the vacation you’ve been looking forward to.

It’s not just clarity you’re experiencing — you’re probably feeling pretty happy too. You may have started hiking, cycling or running because you were upset, but now you’re feeling your mood lift a bit.

In a complex sequence of events, heavier breathing and an increased heart rate result in higher blood flow and increased in oxygen to your brain. “More blood flow to the brain keeps the brain working,” says Dr. Theodore Stefani, a family practitioner. The increase in blood flow stimulates activity among neurotransmitters — sending signals between different parts of the brain — and makes the brain more efficient.

Although it’s unclear how it actually happens, it’s believed that exercise increases seratonin, dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the body. Increased levels of these naturally produced chemicals have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and doctors treating patients with these problems frequently give their patients an “exercise prescription,” says Stefani. So, that clarity you feel? All those great ideas you have? That happiness you get? It really is all in your head.

But it’s not just chemical reactions in our brains that contribute to our mental wellness. They use exercise as a coping mechanism, instead of say, substance abuse. “Usually, folks that are active are well adjusted,” Stefani says. “Exercise is an outlet, that contributes to total wellness.”

The military has long recognized the advantages of exercise, not only for the obvious physical benefit, but for the mental health of soldiers too. Then there’s the social aspect: People who hike, bike, run, etc. while engaging with others benefit mentally and socially. It’s not just the mental stimulation from engaging with others, the socialization encourages people to continue exercising, which begins the cycle all over. “The key to exercise is doing something you like,” says Stefani.

It’s no surprise that Colorado and Colorado Springs consistently rank as the most fit places in the country, and it follows that we’re fairly well adjusted. Our local community is an example for the rest of the country when it comes to mental health and exercise, according to Stefani.

We’ve discussed the relationship with outdoors activity and cardiovascular, orthopedic, dermatological health and now your mental wellbeing. So, go out. Hike. Bike. Run. Your heart, your bones, your lungs, your skin (use sunscreen) and your brain will thank you.

Happy Trails!

Bob Falcone is a firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and small business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 23 years. He is the board president of the Friends of Cheyenne Canon and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website ( E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob:

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