Tag Archives: physical activity

Good reasons to go for a bike ride

May is National Bike Month, a time to remind people of the many benefits of bicycling and encourage everyone to go for a bike ride. Aside from being a great way to get around, bicycling can improve physical, mental, and social health, and has environmental and economic benefits. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Bike ride


Going for a bike ride is a good way to meet physical activity goals. For most people, bicycling would help meet the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per day. At faster speeds, biking is an excellent exercise to improve fitness. For kids, riding a bike is a fun way to be active and teaches important movement skills.

Riding outdoors can promote enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity, including bicycling, may improve attention, learning, and productivity in adults and children.

Bicycling is often done with others, whether that is a family bike ride or exercising with a cycling group. This strengthens social connections and allows people to share in the enjoyment of being active. Even if you ride alone, you are far less isolated from other people and your environment compared to driving a car. These connections to the community are an important part of health and happiness.

Replacing car trips with cycling is good for the environment, too. Every mile you drive releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the environment. Additionally, spending more time sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your mental and physical health. Biking has no such effects on the environment and has important health benefits including improved fitness, weight control, and greater feelings of wellbeing.

As an added bonus, driving less will mean using less gas. Even though gas prices are lower now than in recent years, every mile you don’t drive saves money. Plus, it costs far less to purchase and maintain a bike than it does a car, so it makes economic sense to ride your bike instead of drive when possible. If you think you drive too far bike, think again. Most people commute less than five miles to work and nearly half of all car trips are less than two miles. Both are reasonable distances to bike. Even if you have longer distances to travel, you could probably replace some car trips with active transportation.

Obviously, biking everywhere isn’t practical. It requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities (including ours), which were built to support cars, not people. Whether or not we bike for exercise or transportation ourselves, we should all act as advocates for changes in the community that will make bicycling more realistic for everyone.

Something as simple as a family bike ride around the neighborhood or biking to work or to visit a friend can have important health, environmental, and economic benefits. In fact, May 20 is National Bike to Work Day, a perfect chance to try commuting by bicycle. Whenever and wherever you ride, keep in mind that common sense says you should always obey all traffic laws and wear a helmet.

Finally, if you haven’t been out on two wheels for some time, don’t worry—it’s just like riding a bike!


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Your Park Prescription

Since Earth Day just passed you are probably thinking about ways you can “go green” to reduce your impact on the environment. Many of these choices are also good for your health. For example, choosing food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint. It is also likely to be picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. Walking or biking instead of driving is another way to protect the environment while you protect your health.

When it comes to exercise, you can literally “go green.” Being active outdoors in nature leads to enhanced feelings of energy, improved mood, and diminished fatigue, anxiety, and anger compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention and productivity in adults and children. Even though the physical, mental, and social benefits of activity in a natural environment are well established, most recommendations just focus on activity, not where it is done. Making the outdoors your destination for activities for you and your family is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

father and son walking in woods


The National Park Prescription (Park Rx) Initiative is designed to encourage people to make the outdoors their destination for exercise and family activities. In fact, April 24th was National Park Rx Day. The idea is to promote access to and use of parks, trails, and other green spaces and highlight the health, environmental, social, and economic benefits of having these resources in our communities. The benefits of parks can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or ability, so enhancing public lands should be a high priority.

This isn’t new of course, but it’s nice to have a reminder. At playgrounds you commonly see as many children playing in the trees that surround the swings, slides, and monkey bars as you see on the playground equipment. Grassy areas serve as picnic spots, impromptu sports fields, and places to run and play. Trails through the woods offer a place to hike and bike as well as trees to explore and climb. Lakes, rivers, and streams (called water trails) are perfect for rowing, paddling, and swimming. And many public parks and green spaces have paved trails so that people of all ages in strollers or wheelchairs can enjoy the outdoors.

Fortunately, there many excellent parks and natural areas to explore in the Aiken area. Aiken State Park, several county and city parks, and neighborhood playgrounds make it easy to find a place to be active outdoors. There is no better place to experience nature than the vast Hitchcock Woods, located right in the heart of Aiken. Community organizations like the GAIT Foundation are dedicated to expanding access to natural areas for all types of outdoor activates. This makes it easy to find a place to walk, run, bike, hike, climb, swim, paddle, push, or ride.

It also makes it easy to follow the Park Rx. Being active is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing. Activity in a natural environment has additional physical, mental, and social health benefits. Share these benefits with others by planning outdoor activities with your family and friends. For maximum effect, you should do this as often as possible—everyday is best. And it doesn’t need to be a day long excursion. Even taking the dog for a short walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to reap the benefits of being active outdoors.


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Your Heart Month action plan

Heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. Despite improvements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, it is still responsible for nearly 600,000 deaths each year, mostly from heart attacks. Millions more are at increased risk because of certain biological and behavioral risk factors. Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, sex, and family history, while others can be altered to reduce risk. These modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. You can learn much more about heart disease from the American Heart Association.

Since February is Heart Month, this is an ideal time to assess your own risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your heart health. If you aren’t sure where to begin, my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes four simple steps you can take to assess and lower your risk for heart disease. If you aren’t sure where to begin, these four steps should be a good start to prevent and treat heart disease.

Heart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Here is your Heart Month action plan:

  1. Assess your risk. If you haven’t done so recently, you should see your doctor to have your risk factors evaluated. This includes tests for blood glucose and blood lipids (including total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides), measurement of your blood pressure and body weight, and an assessment of other health factors such as your family history, whether you smoke, and your level of physical activity. You may be able to find a health fair or other event in the community at which you can have many of these measurements made, but only your doctor can help you determine the best course of treatment given your personal risk profile.
  1. Be active everyday. The benefits of as little as 30 minutes per day physical activity are well-established and impact heart disease risk in a multitude of ways. Physical activity helps with weight control, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids, and prevents and treats diabetes. Think of this as a great health “deal.” By modifying one risk factor—inactivity—you can also promote beneficial changes in four others—obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. There is no other treatment, drugs included, that can have such a broad impact on reducing heart disease risk!
  1. Improve your diet. If you are like most Americans, your diet is too high in unhealthy fats, salt, and added sugar and lacking adequate whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fiber. This type of diet is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. All of these conditions are risk factors for heart disease, so you may literally be eating your way to a heart attack. Changing what you eat to include more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat meat and dairy and minimizing added sugars, fat, and processed foods can help you lose weight and prevent or treat high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  1. Quit smoking. There is no way around this one—quit! Ask your doctor about prescription medications that can make quitting easier. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can help manage cravings and are available over the counter. Ultimately, though, quitting smoking is a behavior change that takes motivation, willpower, and time. But it is worth it—your risk of heart attack goes down within days and can drop 50–70% within five years after quitting.

The potential impact of these steps is great. Knowing which risk factors are most concerning can help you and your doctor make the most effective treatment decisions. Even modest changes in diet and activity can lead to improvements in risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. The best news is that you can start today by putting down your next cigarette, going for a walk, and eating a healthier dinner. Your heart will be glad you did.


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Just in time…tips to prevent holiday weight gain.

Thanksgiving is this week which means the holiday season is upon us. It is a time for spending time with family and friends, shopping, and eating. The bad news is that weight gain between Thanksgiving and the new year is a very real possibility. The good news is that the typical holiday weight gain is less than you might think. The even better news is that this weight gain can be prevented.


First, the bad news. Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound during the holidays. Even subjects who said they were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about 0.5 pounds on average. The problem is that this extra weight is not lost during the spring or summer, meaning that holiday weight gain is a major contributor to the gradual increase in weight, about one pound per year, most people experience over time.

Now for the good news: The weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since people tend to gain less than one pound, even small modifications to activity or diet can make a difference. Here are some strategies:

  1. Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by walking about one mile, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking further away in the parking lot. Go for a walk before or after a family meal or party—and take your family and friends with you.
  1. Stay away from the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food—literally, fill your plate and move away from the food. Using a smaller plate will reduce the amount of food you take, too. Getting rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home are also smart ideas.
  1. Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. For example, egg nog can contain over 300 calories per glass. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation.
  1. Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to a party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party, make it something healthy that you like.
  1. Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy special meals and events with family and friends, and that should be your focus. You should enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, just do it in moderation.

You can prevent holiday weight gain by watching what you eat and staying active. It is easier to keep the weight off than it is to lose it later, so a little extra effort now is worth it in the long run. Considering that many people plan to exercise and lose weight after the holidays, you could get a jump start on your New Year’s resolutions along with making this a happy and healthy holiday season.


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Take steps to reduce breast cancer risk. Literally.

Many local and national organizations are busy promoting breast cancer awareness, sharing information about the disease, raising money to support research, and celebrating survivors as a part of Breast Cancer Awareness month. This represents the most visible part of a year-round effort to educate about, screen for, and hopefully cure this devastating disease. Of course, these are all worthy goals that deserve our attention and support. What is often missing are the steps women—especially young women—can take to reduce their risk for, or even prevent, breast cancer. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

cancer exercise group


Approximately 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 300,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed and nearly 40,000 women die from this disease each year. Breast cancer can occur in men, but these cases are rare, so the focus is rightfully on women.

Much attention is given to genetic factors that increase the risk of breast cancer. These include certain gene mutations, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as family history. A woman who has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) who has had breast cancer has nearly twice the risk of being diagnosed herself.

Considering that most women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, it is also important to try to reduce other modifiable risk factors. This involves making health behavior changes that are probably familiar to most people. Among these is regular exercise.

Regular activity and exercise can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 30%, according to a study of over 3,000 women. The intensity of the activity didn’t seem to matter, so participation in light activity such as housework and gardening was as effective as walking. What did matter was the amount of time spent being active. Women who reported even low amounts of activity showed a 6% reduction in breast cancer risk, but the greatest benefits were seen in women who were active for over 10 hours per week.

Women who exercise regularly also have a lower chance of recurrence of breast cancer. As many as 1 in 5 of breast cancer survivors experience a recurrence within 10 years. Even relatively low levels of exercise may reduce this risk, and women who do exercise have greater rates of survival. The amount of exercise needed to realize these benefits is equivalent to 45–60 minutes of brisk walking five days per week.

Exercise is effective for reducing breast cancer risk because it lowers levels of the hormone estrogen. This is important because estrogen is linked with the majority of breast cancers and is especially relevant for women with estrogen receptor-positive cancers.

Exercise can also reduce the risk of breast cancer by helping with weight control. Excess body fat increases levels of estrogen, resulting in a higher risk of breast cancer diagnosis and recurrence. Regular physical activity is essential for losing weight and keeping it off. Exercise can also help reduce the increased risk of breast cancer that comes with weight gain, something that is common as women get older.

Women who have been active their whole lives have the lowest risk of breast cancer, but it is never too late to start. Women who exercise also tend to handle breast cancer treatment better than women who aren’t active. In fact, post-cancer exercise programs are becoming more common as a way to help women recover from cancer treatment and prevent recurrence.

Other lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of breast cancer include maintaining a healthy body weight, consuming alcohol in moderation, not smoking, and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. The good news is that these changes will also help you reduce your risk of other cancers, cardiovascular disease, and most other chronic diseases, too.


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Forget about low-carb, go smart carb.

Nutrition advice tends to be complicated and contradictory, making simple answers to the question, “What should I eat?” anything but simple (but you still need to do it!). This is particularly true when it comes to carbohydrates. On one hand, current recommendations call for carbohydrates to be the major part of your diet. On the other hand, low-carbohydrate diets are at odds with these recommendations but are still very popular.

For example, the Atkins diet restricts all carbohydrates, including refined grains and sugars. The Paleolithic diet emphasizes minimally processed foods that may have been consumed by our ancient ancestors including lean meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables while restricting the consumption of grains and added sugars. Both have been shown to promote weight loss better than traditional low-fat diets.

Proponents of low-carbohydrate diets claim that restricting carbohydrates promotes fat loss and eating carbohydrates leads to fat storage and weight gain. It is also likely that people who follow low-carbohydrate diets find them easier to stick to than other diets, so they may actually end up eating fewer calories.

But the problem may not be carbohydrates in general, it might be eating too few of the right carbohydrates. Given that September is Whole Grains Month, this seems like a good time to explore the benefits of going smart-carb instead of low-carb. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Food grains


Sources of carbohydrates include whole grains (such as whole wheat bread), refined grains (white bread), and sugars. Both refined grains and sugars tend to raise blood glucose rapidly, called the glycemic index, which leads to an increase in certain hormones, including insulin. Insulin stimulates the uptake of nutrients into cells, including the storage of fat in adipose tissue. This is one reason why carbohydrates are linked to fat gain and why restricting carbohydrates leads to fat loss.

But carbohydrates from whole grains don’t raise either blood glucose or insulin as much. This “low and slow” response has several benefits, including improved blood glucose regulation, lower triglycerides, and, potentially, reduced fat storage. For these reasons, complex carbohydrates from whole grains are called “good carbs,” in contrast to refined grains and sugars, known as “bad carbs.”

Considering that the typical American diet contains too much carbohydrate from sugars and refined grains and not enough whole grains, restricting carbohydrates may have some benefits. But there is another approach: be smart about your carbohydrate choices. Instead of cutting out all carbohydrates, focus on reducing refined grains and sugars and emphasizing whole grains.

You can meet this goal by limiting your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, and refined grains while increasing your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that are high in fiber. When comparing food labels, look for foods that contain whole grains (the first ingredient should be something like “whole wheat flour”) and higher levels of fiber. But be aware that some foods, like many breakfast cereals, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar. The best advice is to get the majority of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods.

Something to keep in mind is that although low-carbohydrate diets are associated with weight loss and good health, they are not the only way to achieve these benefits. Indeed, people who are considered to be fit and healthy have a wide range of eating patterns, from vegetarian and low-fat diets to extreme low-carbohydrate diets and everything in between. The one factor they have in common is that they are active. It may be that regular exercise is just as important as what you eat when it comes to promoting health.


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It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Eating well and being physically active are two of the most important things you can do to promote good health. But knowing you should do these things does not always mean it is easy to actually do them.

Despite the simplicity of the message “eat healthy and exercise,” many people struggle with knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. This is largely due to the complicated and ever-changing nature of nutrition and exercise information and the fact that most people receive no education in these areas.

You may even feel like the information you read and hear is designed to confuse you. That may be true, considering that much of the nutrition information we get comes from food companies that are trying to convince us to buy their products. Even scientific research can yield conflicting results, challenging even the most knowledgeable professionals, myself included, to make sense of it. And even if you do decide to make eating or activity changes, the “best” diet or exercise program claims may make you wonder if you made the right choice.

Given this, it’s not your fault if you struggle to understand basic health information and recommendations. But it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can to make the best choices for you and your family.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week

Man shopping in supermarket

This won’t be easy, of course. The popular media, as well as social media, promote confusion and false promises about nutrition by making claims that some foods are “toxic” while others are “superfoods.” The old good carb, bad carb or good fat, bad fat arguments have been given a new life as eat this, not that lists. The problem is that many of these claims are not supported by science. The research that is done often yields complicated or conflicting results that aren’t explained in a way that actually helps people make good decisions.

The same is true for exercise. No one doubts that exercise and physical activity are essential for good health, but there are conflicting claims about specific benefits of exercise and what the best form of exercise really is. This can lead to the idea that if you aren’t doing the right exercise, it doesn’t count. Nothing could be further from the truth! While there are reasons why some athletes might want specific types of training, the majority of people can benefit from simply spending less time sitting and going for a walk each day.

So, what can you do? Given the confusing and changing nutrition recommendations it’s best to focus on what hasn’t changed. That is, to focus on eating real food rather than processed, prepackaged foods. Planning meals and snacks to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, lean meat, eggs, and dairy should give you plenty of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Instead of worrying about the “perfect” exercise, make it your goal to do something active for at least 30 minutes every day.  Beyond that, dedicating time for aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise will bring greater benefits. Remember, the best exercise for you is the one you will do! Seek advice from people you trust and credible professionals, but remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Your responsibility isn’t to understand all of the nutrition, exercise, and health information you hear. It’s to make an effort to make a few simple, healthy choices despite that confusing information: Sit less, move more, and eat real food.


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Sometimes kids do get good activity and nutrition education in school. Here are two examples.

Earlier this week I wrote about the fact that most children will miss any meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health when they head back to school. But this isn’t always the case. Some schools include health education in the curriculum, but most don’t. But others do promote healthy eating and exercise elsewhere in the curriculum (daily PE, for example), opportunities for activity throughout the day (recess, letting kids move around in the classroom), and providing healthy meals and snacks.

This is critically important, since good nutrition and physical activity are necessary prerequisites for children to learn and grow.

kids playing


Sometimes I hear about schools that have implemented robust health education programs and individual teachers who make an effort to add activity and nutrition to the “testable” subjects they teach. I am also familiar with two educators who have made nutrition and physical activity a priority both inside on outside the classroom.

One is my brother (@mrkevinparr), a fourth grade teacher in Washington state. Several years ago he decided to address the childhood obesity problem he saw among his students by teaching about healthy eating. Since there was no room in the curriculum for this topic, he created a way to do it while teaching math. This inspired the students to think beyond their class and organize a community health fair.

The other is a longtime friend who was a principal of an elementary school (now district superintendent) in Michigan. He made physical activity a priority through several initiatives including implementing a walking school bus, installing a track around the playground, and encouraging teachers and students to exercise before, during, and after school. (Check out this video!)

So…it can be done, even in the context of an environment that doesn’t support teaching healthy habits. This isn’t to say that parents don’t play an important role in teaching their children healthy habits. But many parents don’t (or don’t know how). Considering the importance of healthy eating and activity for achievement in school and in life in general, schools are a natural place to address these topics.


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Back to school 2015: What kids will STILL be missing!

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the experience of heading back to school. But it’s really about what most kids won’t experience when they are in school—any meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.

walking school bus


It’s back to school time for kids in our area. Students, parents, and teachers are starting another school year filled with opportunities for children to learn and grow through math and science, reading and writing, and art and music. To be sure, this is time well spent since these subjects help kids build a strong foundation that will help them succeed in school and beyond, something that is widely understood and appreciated.

But children should also learn about good nutrition and physical activity, since both good health and good education are essential for lifelong happiness and success. In most schools, though, most kids won’t experience much meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health. In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. And good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most schools hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!

The message that children need to eat breakfast before school is well-known and many schools offer breakfast for kids who don’t get it at home. Similarly, lunch is an important part of the school day. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, these meals also present an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools.

The same is true for physical activity. Research shows that activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades).

The effect of physical activity on brain may be due to physiological adaptations that are associated with enhanced attention, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is delivered through physical education classes, classroom activity, recess (especially outdoors), or extracurricular activity—it’s the movement that matters!

The point is that good nutrition and physical activity support academic success and including them in schools is a natural fit. Research and practical experience shows that nutrition and physical activity have a positive effect on learning. In many ways, health education is just as important as reading and math, topics schools don’t trust parents to teach on their own, to future success.

Some argue that parents, not schools, should be responsible for promoting physical activity and good nutrition. I disagree! Since nutrition and activity improve academic performance, schools are the perfect place to teach about healthy lifestyles. There is also no guarantee that children will have opportunities to eat well or be physically active when they go home, so school may be the best chance for many kids to get these benefits.

Given that most children will get only limited opportunities for physical activity and good nutrition school, these topics necessarily become “homework.” Since most of us could stand to be more active and eat healthier ourselves, we should start by modeling good habits for our children and grandchildren.

Going for a walk in the neighborhood, going to the playground, or doing yard work along with preparing healthy meals and snacks is a good start. Parents and community members should also express their concerns to lawmakers and administrators in an effort to get more health education included in the school day. We should treat nutrition and activity like we treat other subjects. How would you feel if your child’s school wasn’t teaching math?

This isn’t new, of course. I have written about the both the importance of physical activity for growth and learning for children (and adults, too) and the impact of these missed opportunities before. And I’m certainly not the only one to take notice. Probably the most widely known advocate in this area is Jamie Oliver, and his efforts made nutrition and health in schools topics for discussion among parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians alike.


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More about the benefits of outdoor exercise.

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.

jogger in woods


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!