Immense granite monoliths rising out of the sea. Tropical forests filled with waterfalls, orchids and wildlife. A string of white sand beaches, facing the open ocean towards Antarctica. There’s no doubt that Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And, if you’re not already happy and healthy enough, living in the cidade maravilhosa, you will be once you start getting out and enjoying the natural side of the city. Here are a few examples:
Would you rather spend your free time: a) sitting at your computer, reading all the latest twists and turns in Brazil’s corruption scandal; b) lifting heavy pieces of metal in a sweaty Zona Sul academia, while looking down at a traffic-filled road; or c) take to one of Rio’s cool forest trails, leading to magnificent views? If the answer is a) or b), that’s perfectly acceptable, but don’t forget that you also have a free lifelong subscription to (c): Rio’s great outdoors!
There’s no doubt that exercise is good for you. It helps to burn off all those calories you took in over the week in the form of salgados, rodízios and chopes. It makes your heart and lungs stronger, firms you up, reduces the levels of cholesterol and sugar in your blood. Many people achieve this, enjoying the ease, routine and social aspect of exercising in an academia. But the thing is, that in a city like Rio, it’s not actually necessary to have to pay to exercise indoors. You can get the same benefits, and more, at Rio’s numerous scenic points. Try doing some of the mountain trails, like Pedra da Gávea and Dois Irmãos. Apart from the cardiovascular workout, you’ll get a) an escape from streetlevel pollution, b) a sense of tranquility in being immersed in nature and c) a feeling of elation upon reaching a peak with an incredible view. The following day you’ll realize that you did the equivalent of hundreds of squats without even knowing. So, d) excellent news for your thighs, hips and buttocks.
There are many other examples. Swimming is an all-round, low-impact exercise, usually practiced in a pool.
Once you start swimming in the sea (choose a calm day) you’ll realize that it’s a whole new kettle of fish. In salt water, you’re more buoyant, so it feels easier and is far more enjoyable. There are those wonderful summer days when the ocean off Ipanema is calm and crystal-clear. As you glide through the water and take a breath, you’ll see Corcovado mountain rising high above the beach and buildings. Awesome! Of course, be wary about swimming in carioca waters: they’re infamous for strong currents and powerful waves. So, it’s probably a good idea to join one of the many beach swimming clubs. Apart from the exercise per se, benefits are thought to arise from bodily contact with mineral-rich seawater. Thassalotherapy, an alternative medicine coined by the ancient Greeks, is supposed to be good for your skin, immune system and general wellbeing. So, even if you don’t go for a long swim, a quick dip in the waves of Leblon is still good for you!
There are numerous studies* suggesting that contact with nature is good for your mental health. Some of these have been hinted at above, and they go beyond that feel-good factor you get after physical exertion. It’s the benefit gained simply from being in a natural environment, even if not exercising in it.
Cities, and Rio is no exception, can be stressful and mentally tiring places to live in. For many of us, a relief from all this urban wear and tear comes in the form of an escape to the mountains or beaches at the weekend. It helps to restore our mental energy and reduce our levels of cortisol, the hormone often used as a marker for stress. Too much cortisol is linked to a weaker immune system, higher blood sugar and weaker bone formation. But to reduce your levels of stress and cortisol you don’t need a whole weekend away: it could be a walk along the sandy shores of Copacabana or a trip up the Sugarloaf (after strolling along the gentle Pista Cláudio Countinho). Even having trees on your street is supposed to help. Those bucolic Urca and Botafogo quarters are a good example.
Also in the mental health sphere, depression is thought to ease when surrounded by nature, especially when combined with exercise. In addition, studies show that time in the great outdoors reduces levels of anxiety and bad moods. Time for all of us to pack our rucksacks and head for a walk through the forest to the Forte do Leme! Or head off, for a few days, to Ilha Grande. The Japanese have taken it a stage further. They call it “forest bathing”. Shinrin-yoku is the art of taking short and relaxing visits to forests for health benefits. Numerous studies show that forest bathing reduces stress, anxiety, cortisol and blood pressure. If you’re lucky, you might even get to breathe in some phytoncides (antimicrobial essential oils) that are used in holistic medicine and aromatherpy. So, no excuses now! Head to your nearest patch of Rio greenery, like Jardim Botânico, Parque Lage or the Aterro do Flamengo, for your daily dose of forest bathing!
This article could quote many other benefits and marvels of nature. We’re lucky in Rio to have so much of it still around. It’s probably a reason why many of us choose to live here. You’ll get many more ideas of outdoorsy things to do and places to visit by looking back at previous editions of The Umbrella, on the BCS website. It’s been an immense pleasure and privilege writing the “Great Outdoors” column the last couple of years. I hope you’ve liked the articles. As I sign off for the last time, I give one final piece of advice: keep calm and carry on enjoying Rio’s natureza maravilhosa!
*See, e.g., Business Insider, April 22, 2016, “11 scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside”