By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist
Hopefully, you are planning to exercise today. If you haven’t gotten in a workout already, you might be planning a trip to the gym later in the day. If it’s a nice day, you should think about exercising outdoors. It turns out that exercise in a natural environment has benefits beyond the improvements in fitness or weight loss you would expect from the activity itself. Taking your exercise session outdoors can give you a better workout and make you feel healthier and more energized than staying in the gym.
Go outside and play!
The benefits of regular exercise and other active pursuits are well established. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. While any exercise anywhere is beneficial for physical health, exercise outdoors seems to have an even greater impact on mental health.
Indeed, activity in a natural environment leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Exercise outdoors has been shown to reduce anxiety, anger, and sadness to a greater degree than similar activity conducted indoors. This effect is greater for patients with mood disorders such as depression, but everyone may experience these benefits to some degree. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may increase attention in adults and children. Even short bouts of activity can be meaningful, since much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise is realized in the first five minutes.
Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout. It is likely that you will exercise at a higher intensity outdoors, resulting in a greater energy expenditure. Part of this is due to simply walking or running at a faster speed than you would indoors, but the outdoor environment itself may play a role. Variations in the ground surface and wind resistance can increase your exertion and help you burn at least a few more calories when you walk or run outdoors. The wind resistance is especially noticeable and can greatly increase energy expenditure when comparing cycling outdoors and on a stationary bike in the gym.
The good news is that you may not notice that you are working harder outdoors. Research shows that even though people tend to walk or run faster outside, they don’t necessarily feel like it is more intense. In fact, the rating of perceived exertion (RPE), a self-reported measure of how hard the exercise feels, is lower despite having a higher heart rate outdoors. Since how you feel during exercise is part of what determines how hard or long you will exercise, this suggests that training outdoors may lead to greater fitness improvements.
This is thought to occur because the pleasant visual stimuli outdoors distracts you from unpleasant sensations of effort during exercise. This is the same reason that listening to music makes exercise more enjoyable and why fitness centers have televisions on the walls or built into exercise equipment. Think of the outdoors as a really big TV screen and watching it distracts you from negative feelings of effort as you exercise.
Green is good.
The qualities of the outdoor environment are important when considering the potential health benefits. The physical and mental health responses to exercise are improved when the outdoor environment is natural and “green” as opposed to urban and “built.” It seems obvious that spending time in the tranquility of nature would be more pleasant than a noisy urban area, something that is supported by research. Even finding green space in an urban environment can promote positive changes in mood, whether you exercise while you are there or not.
In fact, the color green itself plays a role in the psychological benefits of “green” exercise. In one study participants watched a video showing trees and other green foliage while they exercised. On one occasion the video showed the natural (green) colors of the plants and on another occasion the video was edited to remove the color. Remarkably, the subjects reported that the exercise felt harder when the natural colors were altered!
While walking, running, and cycling are probably the most familiar outdoor exercises, keep in mind that almost any exercise can be done outside. Resistance training using body weight is common and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. On nice days group fitness classes can be held outdoors – think yoga in the park – to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.
The fitness benefits of exercise are similar whether it is completed indoors or outdoors, but there is one potential benefit of outdoor exercise that working out in the gym simply can’t match – sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis. A growing number of adults and children have low vitamin D levels, which could lead to bone health problems. The recommended sun exposure ranges from 10–60 minutes per week, which could easily be met by outdoor activity or play.
There are some common sense guidelines regarding outdoor exercise. Caution should be used on very hot and humid days. And, while some sun exposure is good for you, too much can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer. Staying hydrated, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen, and planning your activity early or late in the day are good ways to stay safe while you exercise outdoors.
Memberships are free at the Blue Sky Gym.
Now is a perfect time of year to transition at least some of your exercise from the gym to the great outdoors. If you are new to exercise, going for a walk each day is a good way to start without paying for a fitness center membership. Use the outdoors as your own gym – the Blue Sky Gym!
Taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are other good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors. Also think about going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances. Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier.