Even though the warm weather is finally here many of us still find it difficult to resist the allure of the gym – climate controlled, convenient and predictable. Emerging science however, suggests that the benefits of regular exercise (improved heart health, stress management, weight control, a decreased risk of chronic disease and dementia, and that’s just a start) can be increased substantially if we add a connection with nature.
A recent study on older adults revealed that people who exercised outside, usually by walking, completed on average about 30 minutes more exercise a week than their counterparts exercising indoors (Int J Behav Nutr Phys, Jul 2012). They also had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) thereby decreasing resting heart rate, blood pressure and increasing a sense of well-being.
Studies so far have not established why. It is thought that exposure to direct sunlight which increases vitamin D (known to improve mood) plays a role. And, instead of looking at walls and TVs, you see beautiful scenes like this:
Another surprising benefit of exercising outdoors is that exposure to plants can improve your immune system. Scientists think that the airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from fungus, bacteria and insects (phytoncides) may also benefit humans (Biopsychosoc Med, Apr 2012).
On the physical side, outdoor exercise is more strenuous. Our ankles flex more when we walk or run on outdoor terrain rather than a track, we go up and down hills which moves our muscles in different ways, and we encounter wind resistance which burns more calories (well.blogs.nytimes/2013).
So if you are a reluctant or inconsistent exerciser try moving your routine outdoors. Despite the boom in the sales of exercise clothes and gym memberships, there has been no improvement in our national fitness levels so, clearly, gyms are not the answer.