(Not) A Poem about the Great Outdoors

Posted by in May's Magazine

I was going to write a poem about how wonderful it is exercising in the great outdoors. Cycling around Edinburgh in the sunshine got me feeling lyrical about the beauty of Spring and so on and so forth. Then I realised my awful poetry would probably put you off exercise for life. I can hear you thinking, ‘What? Exercise makes you write bad poetry? That’s it for me then…no more exercise for me’. Or words to that effect.

So instead I’m going to outline a convincing argument of how exercising outside really is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your head state. Let’s start with the basics. An increase in good mood is created by an increase of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. These ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, are released under certain conditions, and it has been scientifically proven that exercise is one of these conditions.


Fat burning zone
A simple internet search will reveal oodles of compelling research and evidence. Any form of exercise can improve your mood (especially if your body is also seeing the benefits), but the type of exercise where these neurotransmitters are released in a larger proportion is with LSD (Yippee! – Ed) I can see what you’re thinking, but no, LSD stands for Long Slow Distance. (Oh…) Our brains seem to like the body exercising for a long, slow distance a.k.a. plodding along for a fair while.

It’s the kind of exercise encouraged by the Mental Health Foundation to help boost mood. And it is working when you feel slightly puffed for at least the length of an episode of EastEnders. Consider hill walking, where a decent hill will take at least half an hour to get up. You’re rewarded with the view, in addition to feelgood neurotransmitters pinging around your head. No wonder ‘bagging Munroes’ is popular with city dwellers.

On a sports science level what you’re doing is in fact working within the aerobic cardio heart rate zone, known in some circles as the ‘fat burning zone’. Going at a steady plod is how your body burns body fat most efficiently. You breathe in oxygen as the fuel for energy production. Sprinting, or going harder, has you using up more oxygen than you can breathe in (anaerobic exercise), and is therefore more stressful on the body.

The good news is that a steady plod – whether it be fast walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or any other form of locomotion, is all you need to get those good feelings going. The more you do, the fitter you get, and so the more you are capable of doing and the more body fat you lose. However, one of the common reasons a lot of folk state for starting exercise is that they want to have more energy. You’d think if you burnt more energy then you would have less overall. No! The more steady plodding you do, the more energy you get. Which is why some fit folk are always in such a cheesy mood. And how some folk get ‘addicted’ to the gym. They’re doing it right.

Now, a word about the gym versus the great outdoors. I used gyms for over 14 years of my life, starting with weights when I was 16. It’s a good resource in winter, but personally I find machines a little boring. If I’m going to get my heart rate up for half an hour or more – what I need to do to get my ‘feel good’ fix – I need to find something that I like doing. Some folk are happy to go on a treadmill and watch an entire TV programme – it depends on the individual.

I personally find the very fresh air of Edinburgh adds to the overall exercise ‘high’. There’s more oxygen outdoors than in a gym (recycled air indoors), and so I reckon cardio/pulse-raising exercise outdoors is an even more effective mood boost. Getting out and seeing what’s going on in the local neighbourhood offers a distraction and something to gossip about. Sometimes I wave to folk I know. Certainly many of the dog walkers in Pilrig Park say hello.

Our local parks are a great place to workout and so, as part of the Leith Festival I’m organising an Outdoor Fitness for Everyone session on the morning of Leith Gala day in Leith Links. We’ll be meeting at the top of Hamburger Hill (seriously, that’s the name of the hill on Leith Links next to the football club) at 10am on Saturday 11th June. It’s going to be an hour of getting your heart rate up, and the idea is that it’s suitable for all. You can take rests if you need, but the idea is just to get outdoors and enjoy it!

Illustration: Ian Kinghorn

Info: getfitandenjoyit.com & mentalhealth.org.uk

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