You probably know that exercise is good for you and that going for a daily walk is associated with improved health. 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.
What you may not know is that where you exercise matters and that exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health.
Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children.
I have written about outdoor exercise in the past, but recent media reports on the topic make this a good time to share new research and revisit some the benefits of being active in nature. Which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard.
A couple of recent studies, widely reported by the media, highlight some additional benefits of simply going for a walk outdoors in nature as well a possible explanation as to why. In these studies, participants who went for a walk in a quiet, tree-lined area experienced greater improvement in mood—they felt happier—than those who walked along a busy street in an urban area. The researchers also completed brain scans to determine that the difference in mood was related to changes in blood flow in the brain. The finding that being active in a natural environment caused physiological changes that led to psychological benefits is exciting!
Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout. This is mostly due to the fact that you will likely walk or run faster outdoors, but other factors like wind resistance add to your effort. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, they don’t necessarily feel it. In fact, ratings of effort are lower outdoors for the same exercise.
This 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!
Almost any indoor exercise can be moved outdoors. While walking, running, and cycling are most obvious, resistance training exercises using body weight and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. Yoga and aerobics classes in the park are also great ways to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.
Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity are meaningful. It also means that going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances can have positive effects. At home, taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors.
Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier. So, get outside and go for a walk!