Skip the gym and head outdoors instead

Bikers in the sunsetAs kids, we played outdoors with friends, walked to school, and played on sports teams. For most of us, a lack of exercise wasn’t a concern. Adults however, often believe that to be active and fit, a pricey gym membership is essential. Not so. In fact, maybe it’s time to forego the gym membership altogether and to step outdoors instead. It turns out that all that fresh air and exercise we enjoyed as kids, and would do well to keep up as adults, offers more in the way of health benefits than most of us ever knew.

A Scottish Health Survey (2008) of 2,000 active participants found that outdoor physical activity had a 50 percent more positive effect on mental health than exercising at the gym. The researchers also found that walking, running, biking, and other outdoor activities, particularly in a green space, also reduced stress. I’m a big believer in a daily dose of ‘Vitamin N’ (nature) in all seasons, which is why I opt to exercise outdoors several times a week… playing tennis, running, walking, hiking and cycling.

Compared with indoor exercise, being active outdoors is also associated with increased energy, and decreased tension, confusion, anger, and depression. Best of all, participants from a number of additional studies reported they were more likely to repeat outdoor activity at a later date.

Here are some of the additional benefits to outdoor exercise:

  1. Outdoor physical activity is often more strenuous than indoor exercise. In studies comparing running on a treadmill with running outdoors, treadmill users expended less energy to cover the same distance as those striding outside. What makes the difference? Small changes affiliated with exercising outdoors… things like wind resistance and changes in terrain.
  2. A few small studies have also found that those who exercise outdoors have lower blood levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, than those who exercise indoors.
  3. In a number of recent studies, volunteers were asked to take two daily walks for the same time or distance — one indoors on a treadmill or track, the other outdoors. In every study, the volunteers reported enjoying the outdoor exercise more, and scored higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, and enjoyment, while also reporting reduced fatigue and depression and tension.
  4. Enjoyment may be the most important reason to exercise outdoors and make it easier to commit to doing so regularly. With only about 15% of Canadian adults active enough for their health, the prevalence of indoor gyms don’t appear to be changing behaviour.
  5. When we exercise outdoors, we create vitamin D3, which is important to bone health and metabolic function. Research tells us that exposure to sunlight during the day can help us sleep better at night, improve immune function, and increase feel-good hormones circulating throughout our bodies. Nonetheless, it is important to think prevention and to protect your skin from sun damage.

For similar features, please visit the column I write for DeerFields Clinic in Toronto.

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