Climb a tree, and wiggle those hips: exercises to boost your mood

From getting the most out of your daily stroll to scaling a tree in your local park, here are three ways to get moving and feel better

Climb a tree

Who decided climbing trees was for kids? Not Mark Holton, co-director of the Cornell University Outdoor Education Centre in the US. “Part of the thrill of climbing trees is it reminds us of our relatively carefree youth,” he says.

Like all good physical exercise, tree climbing forces you to focus on the moment and be mindful of your movements and the potential each has to put you in danger. Conquering this, then relaxing, is part of the appeal.

The benefit of tree climbing lies in its closer connection with nature. A study in Japan found tree climbers showed greater vitality, and reduced tension and fatigue, than those who climbed in urban settings. Exercising in a natural framework offers an escape, says Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide. “Trees can render the climber invisible; perched high in an oak or cedar, you become cocooned. Linger long enough and you will find birds returning to the branches around you.”

So where should the novice begin? Find a park or open green space, Holton says. “These have the most light, so trees grow sideways as well as up, with branches that reach lower to the ground and nice spreading canopies. Trees in the forest have more competition, so the lower branches get shaded out and die. You can still climb them, but it requires safety equipment and training.”

Avoid trees that have rotting roots or deep holes, missing bark or fungus. “Good climbing trees are healthy; look for hardwoods such as oaks, maples and sycamore; avoid pines and spruces, which tend to be brittle and sappy.”

Take it one arm and leg at a time. “Be sure your next handhold is alive and large enough to hold your weight,” Holton says. “And don’t climb so high that you are scared to descend.

The best moments occur when you have reached a place where you feel secure and can take a moment to look around and release a little of your tension and fear,” he says. “Look up at the sky and enjoy the wind in the leaves.”

Swing those hips

Montage of a yellow smiley face with hula hoop exercise rings
‘Being strong and flexible is paramount for good health.’ Composite: Getty/Guardian Design

What’s the one exercise everyone should do – regardless of age, fitness level or flexibility – to increase their wellbeing? For Simon Alebiosu, personal trainer and former jiu-jitsu champion, the answer is simple: the hip circle (AKA hip-controlled articular rotations, or hip Cars).

If you have healthy hips, you are more likely to have a healthy lower back, knees and spine. Problems in any of these areas can be debilitating, increasing the risk of injury and osteoarthritis.

So how do you do it? Start by standing with your feet flat on the floor, holding on to a wall or stable chair for balance. Brace your core and tense all your muscles to keep your body rigid. Lift one knee up to hip height, or as high as it will go without rounding your lower back.

Open the raised leg out to the side, turning your foot outwards but without letting your hips rotate; they should remain facing forwards. Then turn the sole of your foot backwards, and lift the leg slowly up behind you. This is an internal hip rotation rather than a stretch, so go with whatever range of movement you have. Then gently lower to the starting position and repeat.

Aim to do the hip Cars slowly, taking 30-60 seconds for each one, for basic hip maintenance. To work your hips harder, do this two or three times a day. You can also do the same movement in reverse – starting with your leg up behind you. Alebiosu says he sees even better results with variants on all fours, or lying on your side.

Strength, he adds, isn’t about throwing down weights in gyms and hashtagging your muscle goals on Instagram; instead, it’s about the ability to get the most fun out of an everyday, active life. “Being strong means being able to coordinate complicated movements, at high speeds, under load; for example, lifting boxes if you are moving home, or running around in the park playing with your children. Being physically strong and flexible is paramount for good health, and it will make you feel more confident.”

Take a hike

Montage of yellow smiley face against a backdrop of mountains and a lake
‘Walking is a free and timeless way to take a break.’ Composite: Alamy/Guardian Design

Yes, you do it every day, but are you getting the most out of it?

Stand up straight
Consider your posture: a 2015 study took a group of walkers and adjusted their gait to either “happy” (standing straighter, swinging arms purposefully) or “depressed” (slouching forward, little arm movement). The ones made to walk in a more “happy” way recalled a higher proportion of “positive self-relevant material” in tests.

Stride out solo
While walking with friends may seem intuitively to be a better way to boost happiness, according to clinical psychologist Dr Anna Hutchinson, solo walking can be just as beneficial, particularly if you take a mindful approach. “Some people can get into a more meditative space when solo walking,” she says. Concentrate on the rhythm of your footfall and your body’s movement to tune out external distractions or listen to a “mindful walking meditation” such as those found on the Headspace or Calm apps.

Go for green
About 20-30 minutes of walking in even the smallest amount of nature has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as being linked to beneficial changes in blood pressure and heart rate. Oh, and put away that phone.

Put some effort in
“Walking is the single most beneficial cardiovascular exercise anyone can do,” says coach and trainer Tom Craggs. “Counting steps or distance is one way to measure progress – but the terrain and conditions will make a big difference. So instead, focus on gradually building your ‘time on feet’. Wear a heartrate monitor if you like, but for most people, trusting a rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 0-10 is perfect. Most of your walks should be at 2-3/10 effort. As you build fitness, mix in some 5-7/10 efforts.”

Trekking poles have been shown to help burn up to 20% more calories if used correctly, Craggs says, as they involve more upper body action.

Free your mind
“Walking is a free and timeless way to take a break from fearful thoughts of the future or difficult feelings from the past,” Hutchinson says, “to focus on the here and now – to simply be.”


Kate Carter

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A joyless trudge? No, thanks: why I am utterly sick of ‘going for a walk’
As a Canadian living in the UK, there’s one thing I still don’t get about the British: what’s so great about trudging through a muddy field to nowhere?

Monica Heisey

27, Feb, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
The big sniff: why changing the smell of the room you’re in could boost your mood
Introducing a pleasant ambient fragrance is one of the most effective ways to enhance wellbeing

Charles Spence

09, Jan, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Want to improve focus and productivity? Do one thing at a time
Juggling too many activities wastes time and energy, so shelve at least some for those life goals (for now)

Oliver Burkeman

08, Jan, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
‘Fresh air is medicine’: British ramblers on the joy of their daily walk
Families, friends and dog walkers on the South Downs share the joy of getting out and about

Photographs: Jonathan Browning. Interviews: Joe Stone

27, Feb, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
I teach a course on happiness at Yale: this is how to make the most of your resolutions
Forget tough love. Adopting a positive mindset and being kind to yourself is a more effective way to make a change

Dr Laurie Santos

08, Jan, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Dance workouts got me through lockdown – here are 10 of the best
From the J Lo Super Bowl challenge to Cher-obics, pick a style and dance your blues away

Abigail Radnor

08, Jan, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘I deserve a glass’ – and four other lies you should stop telling yourself about drinking
As stress rises, so does our alcohol consumption. Here’s how to change your relationship with drink for good

Rosamund Dean

08, Jan, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
‘I see human resilience every single day’: people in tough jobs on how to stay hopeful
A hospice nurse, bereavement counsellor, firefighter, climate change lecturer and social worker share their secrets

Sirin Kale

10, Jan, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
50 easy hacks to change your life in 2020
Sleep better, get fit, be kinder and improve your carbon footprint with these simple fixes

Amy Fleming

04, Jan, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
How to dress yourself happy, one feelgood outfit at a time
Clothes can boost confidence or bring comfort – follow our dopamine dress code to add a little joy to your day

Jess Cartner-Morley

09, Jan, 2021 @2:00 PM