When you were a kid and your parents told you to go outside and play – they may have only been trying to grab a moment of peace for themselves. Nevertheless, your growing mind and body reaped the benefits of the activity, fresh air and sunshine.
As we grew into adults with responsibilities and jobs, playtime was replaced by classroom or office time. And maybe added gym time for exercise. And while the responsibilities are necessary, and the exercise is beneficial, adding outdoor play back into your life might be one of the healthiest steps you take.
People who exercise regularly have lower rates of chronic disease, stronger muscles and bones, and a greater sense of well-being. But many studies show that those benefits are magnified when you take your exercise outside. Green exercise – exercise outdoors – improves happiness, relaxation, self-esteem, and mood, while decreasing fatigue, anxiety, and anger.
If you’re used to the the treadmill, elliptical, and resistance equipment of the gym, think outside the four walls for a moment. Activities like hiking, biking, gardening, and playing with kids give you much needed exercise while soaking up the outdoors. And lest you think those sound like too much fun to be considered beneficial, all those activities have the potential to work multiple muscle groups, use body weight for resistance and give you an aerobic workout.
If you are still hesitant to give up your gym time, here are five reasons to take it outside:
Variety in your exercise environment makes your body work harder to accommodate temperature changes, changes in terrain, inclines, and wind variations. All of which boosts your body’s ability to adapt. Exercising on varied terrain also strengthens your connective tissues and helps you avoid overuse injuries from repetition.
Outside exercise provides a beneficial dose of vitamin D. When your skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, your body produces vitamin D, which is vital for bone health. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to autoimmune disease, heart disease, depression, and increased cancer risk. Although foods like cheese, egg yolks, and fatty fish do contain some vitamin D, the sun is our primary source.
Many studies link outdoor exercise with a stronger immune system. Why? For one thing, the air outside is generally cleaner than the air inside – even in most metropolitan areas. But many studies have also found that being outside boosts your immune system in general and provides protection from diseases such as diabetes, cancer, ADHD, and cardiovascular disease. Being near forests or water is especially beneficial, but even a little bit of green is good for you. The exact reasons are unknown, but the key ingredients may be factors like plant microbes, negative ions (found near running water), and microscopic organisms found in nature. And of course, sunlight.
The mind/body connection is undeniable. When you feed your body, you feed your mind. And likewise, when your mind feels better, your body feels better. And your mind craves stimulation.
Changes in scenery, being around other people, and being out in nature all provide your brain with more stimulation and enjoyment than being alone indoors. So while a varied environment works your body, it also gives your mind a workout. Outdoor exercisers tend to be more aware of their surroundings and more in tune with the world around them than folks who exercise within the same four walls, zoning out on repetitive and mindless exercises.
We know that exercise alone can improve depression, anxiety, sleep, PTSD, and ward off chronic disease. We also know that interacting with nature can improve depression, anxiety, and stress levels. Exercising in nature, then, is a double bonus. Those who exercise outdoors regularly have higher levels of endorphins (feel-good chemicals) and serotonin (a happiness chemical). They also report more positive feelings about themselves and their lives. The vitamin D we get from sunlight also helps fight depression, while being in nature and exercising both help decrease cortisol (the stress hormone).
For some, the benefits of exercising outside are enough to completely alleviate mild symptoms of depression and anxiety.
As if the benefits to your body, mind, and mood weren’t enough… there’s no membership required to soak up the outdoors.