As the days get longer and warmer, it's time to take your workout into the open. Research shows that outside activities don’t just offer a break from the monotony of a winter’s worth of machine workouts, they may actually increase your effort, and improve several measures of well-being. Besides, being outside is also really fun.
There’s a body of research suggesting outdoor walkers and runners see a wealth of additional benefits over treadmill users, including improved mood, self-esteem, energy, and pleasure, as well as decreased frustration, worry, and tiredness. Some research suggests that outdoor exercisers may enjoy their exercise more and therefore work out longer and more frequently than indoor trainers. And outdoor workouts often require more exertion, due to wind resistance, terrain, and other factors difficult to replicate indoors.
“You potentially can get more intense physical activity if you’re doing it outside,” says Jacqueline Kerr, associate professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at San Diego State University. “The intensity of the activity is greater, and the time that you do it for is longer.”
In one study, Kerr’s research team found that older adults who exercised outdoors tallied more total time being physically active. In another study, Kerr and her colleagues tracked 117 adults in retirement communities with accelerometer and GPS devices to see when and where they were active. They found that those who spent the most time outside, and the most time being physically active, had the best physical and mental health outcomes.
It’s not totally clear just how all these extra benefits accumulate, but there are plenty of possibilities. Exposure to vitamin D from the sun improves bone density, though one also must be careful to limit the risk of skin cancer. Midday light may also help regulate melatonin, Kerr says, which can in turn improve sleep. And outdoor exposure may also have positive effects on the microbiome, the collection of beneficial internal organisms that can influence our metabolism, among other things. And the social engagement from interacting with people outside is another driver of these benefits.
Part of the effect, Kerr says, is the distraction we face outside. We meet people and see picturesque scenes. Think about it: If you were hiking in a beautiful park, wouldn’t you be more motivated to push yourself longer to see the view from the top of a hill than if you were just logging intervals on a machine?
There’s no reason to give up your gym membership. “If you’ve got an exercise regime that works for you, and it’s indoors, then stick with it,” Kerr says. But, if you are looking for something new to try, “physical activity outdoors should give you more benefit.”
If you want a new outdoor adventure, here are some to try: