It’s official: spring has arrived. Isn’t it amazing how slightly longer days, a little sunshine, and nature budding with colorful flowers can increase your inspiration for exercising outdoors? If you’ve been powering through the winter months with your outdoor workouts, spring can feel like a reward for all the grey, chilly days you have endured. If you’re more of a fair-weather outdoor fitness enthusiast, this new season can feel like a calling to embrace your favorite workouts again.
Today is World Health Day, and this year, the campaign focuses on the interconnectedness between the planet and our health, highlighting the importance of how the very necessary drive to protect the vitality of our natural environment is essential for our wellbeing. Spring is a wonderful reminder of the many benefits that exercising outdoors can bring us and why enabling future generations to enjoy this too is so crucial.
So, what are the benefits of exercising in nature? With the help of Polar Research, we’ve done a deep dive into what scientific evidence is out there regarding outdoor recreation and exercise in relation to health. The result is a range of international studies showing the physical and mental benefits of exercising outdoors, which helps shine a light on why our planet is truly linked to our health.
PHYSICAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF EXERCISING OUTDOORS
One of the obvious physical benefits of heading out into the sunshine to exercise is that it boosts your vitamin D levels. But did you know that obesity is associated with lower levels of this essential nutrient? A study (Florenz et al. 2007) of the hospital records of 300 obese and non-obese individuals in Florida. Overall, they found that 63% of obese individuals had a vitamin D deficit compared to the 36% of non-obese. After adjusting for age, gender, and ethnicity, those reporting outdoor exercise were 47% less likely to have vitamin D deficit, while those with obesity had more than twice the risk.
Could exercising outdoors mean we get more out of what we put in? A study of 160 young participants at a Sydney boys’ school (Jelley 2005) found that a 20-week physical education program focused on outdoor activities resulted in better fitness, body composition, cardiovascular and muscular endurance, strength, and flexibility than traditional physical education. Interestingly, a study comparing the rate of perceived exertion for both indoor and outdoor exercise (Ceci and Hassmen 1991) found that at all the various RPE levels, speed, heart rate, and blood lactate differed between these two environments, with physiological responses higher outdoors. These results indicated that we perceive the same exercise to involve less exertion (precisely two RPE units less) when we exercise outdoors.
Indeed, our perception of nature and how we feel while exercising in it appears to have a notable effect on physical health. A 5-year follow-up cohort study of older people in Japan (Takano et al. 2002) found that those who perceived that they had access to walkable green spaces were more likely to live longer, even after taking age, socioeconomic status, gender, and marital status into account. So, even simply thinking that we can go for a walk outside in nature can emphasize our physical wellbeing.
On a final note, perhaps outdoor exercise is even the answer to jet lag. Another Japanese study (Shiota et al. 1996) studied airline pilots and engineers and how golfing affected their recovery. The result? The resynchronization of their circadian rhythm was better than being active indoors. So, perhaps after a long flight, we should all be trying to get some fresh air and exercise? Worth a try.
MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF EXERCISING OUTDOORS
Have you ever opted to go for a walk or a run in nature to clear your head? Calm down? Shift your mood? Then it will be no surprise to learn that exercising outdoors can significantly boost our mental wellbeing.
Two British studies (Pretty et al. 2005, Manley et al. 2007) observed the same group of 100 people to see how being exposed to or engaging with nature scenes altered their exercise experience. Pretty et al. found that while exercise alone significantly reduces blood pressure, increases self-esteem, and positively affects mood, experiencing ‘pleasant scenes’ either in a rural or urban environment when working out enhanced the positive effect on self-esteem. Manley et al. observed that those who experienced pleasant rural scenes reported a significant post-exercise reduction in anger.
A further study by Pretty et al. (2007) of 260 participants across various forms of outdoor exercise (such as cycling, horse-riding, and fishing) found that these activities led to significant improvements in self-esteem and total mood disturbance. This was despite the fact that everyone was already considered active and healthy and interestingly found that the effects did not vary with the type, intensity, or duration of the activity.
Reaping the mental benefits of exercising outdoors is not simply good for us personally, but is also good for our productivity at work. A study in Finland (Tyrväinen & Tuulentie, 2007) looked at 1,300 people living in different types of urban or natural environments to see what the indirect positive effects of experiencing nature visits. Boosting our work productivity was one of these benefits as long as the visits were at least five hours per month or took place two to three times monthly.
Laukkanen R. Report to Frisk i Naturen- ett Nordiskt project managed by FRIFO (Friluftslivets fellesorganisasjon). Green Exercise, Physical Activity, and Health: Scientific Evidence on Outdoor Recreation and Exercise Based on Selected Studies
Florenz H, Martinez R, Chara W, Strickam-Stein N, Levis S. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 2007, 103:679-81, Outdoor exercise reduces the risk of hypovitaminosis D in the obese.
Jelley S. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 2005, Vol 8, no 4, Suppl. p.91. Outdoor Education Physical Activities: a Primary Prevention for Adolescent Male Obesity?
Ceci R, Hassmen P. Medicine and Science in Sports And Exercise 1991, Vol 23(6), 732-738. Self-monitored exercise at three different RPE intensities in treadmill vs field running.
Takano T, Nakamura K, Watanabe M. Journal of Epidemiol Community Health 2002:56:913-918. Urban residential environments and senior citizens’ longevity in megacity areas; the importance of walkable green spaces.
Shiota M, Sudou M, Ohsihima M. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 1996, 67,12:1155-60 Using outdoor exercise to decrease jet lag in airline crewmembers.
Pretty J, Peacock J, Sellens M, Griffin M. International Journal of Environmental Health Research 2005, 15.5:319-337. The mental and physical outcomes of green exercise.
Manley AJ, Pretty J, Griffin M, Peacock JL, Cleary TW. Journal of Sports Sciences 2007 25, no 3, p.316. Green exercise: The role of exercise environment in enhancing physical and physiological wellbeing.
Pretty J, Peacock J, Hine R, Sellens M, South N, Griffin M. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, Vol 50, no 2:211-231, March 2007. Green exercise in the UK countryside: effects on health and physiological wellbeing, and implications for policy planning.
Tyrväinen L, Tuulentie S. Metlan työraportteja 2007:52. Uonnon Merkitys Kaupunkilaiselle Ja Vaikutus Psyykkiseen Hyvinvointiin. (Effect of Nature for City Dwellers).