After spending all of winter cooped up indoors, it’s time to trade the treadmill for the trails, swap fluorescents for the sun, and ditch stale playlists for the sounds of rustling leaves and dirt beneath your feet.
Research shows that spending more time outdoors may truly be the secret to a stronger, healthier body, and a calmer, happier mind. “For many years, humans were sustained by nature — it fed us and sheltered us,” says Alan Logan, ND, co-author of Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality (Wiley, 2012). “We have an innate and emotional attraction to it.” So it’s no surprise that spending more time outdoors is associated with an overwhelming amount of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improved immunity and a longer life. A walk in the park can even boost your self-esteem, reports a 2012 study published in the journal Perspectivesin Public Health.
And taking your sweat sessions outdoors can fire up your gains even more. “Green exercise is like exercise squared,” says Logan. “We know that exercise is good for us and that being outside is good for us, but when combined, their benefits are even greater.”
In a study of more than 800 adults, researchers found that exercising in natural environments resulted in greater increases in energy and rejuvenation, as well as decreased tension, anger and depression compared to exercising indoors, reports the journal Environmental Science & Technology. What’s more, regularly working out outdoors may increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with your training program. “When you exercise outdoors, you enjoy it more, so you’re more likely to do it again,” explains Eva Selhub, MD, co-author of Your Brain on Nature. So lace up your sneakers for fitter habits and a lifetime of good health.
One of the many reasons outdoor workouts are so good for you is because they draw you away from the stressors and distractions of daily life. In fact, experts have attributed many of today’s mental and physical health epidemics, such as depression and obesity, to nature deprivation syndrome, says Selhub. “It’s the idea that changes in technology, increased screen time, and a fast-paced ‘get-it-done-now’ world keep us away from spending time in nature, which has real health and emotional consequences,” she explains. So to get the most out of your outdoor workouts, leave your gadgets at home and unplug as much as possible when you step outside.
You may want to keep your smartphone with you for safety, but put it in airplane mode so you’re not tempted to check your email or texts. “If the thought of exercising without music makes you less likely to do it, then try to make just some of your workout technology free,” recommends Stacy Berman, owner of Stacy’s Bootcamp, an outdoor fitness program in New York City. “You may be amazed at how great a workout feels when it’s just you and your surroundings.”
Think Like a Kid
Remember recess? During childhood, it was always the best part of the day — a chance to get outside and run around.
That’s exactly what getting outside inspires us to do even now. “You’re more likely to be active the moment you step outdoors than when you’re inside being lured by the screens that are all around you,” says Berman. When it comes to your workouts in the gym, you’re often focused on getting them done so you can move on to the next task in your day. But outside, it’s much easier to let go, have fun and enjoy yourself — and all while scorching calories.
One of the biggest payoffs of training al fresco? “It really forces you to be creative, break out of ruts, and use your body in all of the ways it’s designed to move,” says Berman. For example, not only will trudging uphill provide unique challenges for your lower body, it can also help to alleviate the boredom of your typical humdrum treadmill climb. “The possibilities are infinite,” says Berman. “When you vary your terrain, you challenge your body in new ways, which means you’re always making fitness gains and are much less likely to plateau or get bored.”
Unpredictable and varied terrain also keeps the body guessing. “Non-uniform surfaces activate muscles in the legs and ankles that may be underutilized in a flat environment like the gym,” says Logan. “Uneven turf and wind resistance can also make small but meaningful differences in your caloric burn.” So even if you take the same workout to two different outdoor settings, you’ll work your body in different ways — something you can’t pull off indoors.
One of the best ways to put the “play” into your outdoor workouts is to bring along a partner or friend, says Berman. To really challenge yourself, choose someone more experienced in an activity you want to learn, such as hiking, playing tennis, kayaking, mountain biking, trail running or rock climbing.
Get creative. Training outdoors inspires you to play as you sweat.
The astonishing reality about outdoor exercise is that, although it can be more taxing on your body, you perceive it as being easier. A study published by the American College of Sports Medicine found that subjects who walked on an outdoor track chose a faster pace, yet rated their overall exertion lower than those who walked on a treadmill at a slower pace. “It’s much easier to get out of your head when you’re outside — you have to stay present to navigate trees, rocks and roots, and being outside is naturally more pleasant, so you’re less likely to notice a stitch in your side or fatigue in your legs, which means you can push harder for longer,” explains Logan. Channel your inner child, let go and have fun!
Change Up Your Environment
According to brand new research, different outdoor spaces impact our bodies and minds in different ways. In a study published in Environmental Science & Technology, participants pedaled on a stationary bike while viewing a video on a large screen that simulated riding through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The cyclists performed three five-minute rides while watching three version of the same footage: the first was the unedited lush, green forest, the second was manipulated to look grey, while the third appeared red. The participants rated their perceived level of exertion lowest in the green condition, and reported higher ratings of anger in the red one. Another study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that being exposed to the color green boosts creativity. Both studies suggest that choosing the most natural environments — those with a lot of trees, grass and plant life — is best for boosting your health and performance.
And while you’re at it, consider training near water, too. In a study out of the U.K., researchers compared the effects of urban parks, the countryside and the seaside on individuals’ well-being, and while all locations were linked to increased calmness and refreshment, those who lived by the coast (seaside) tended to be healthier than those who lived further inland. “Forest and water scenes have been shown to increase relaxing alpha wave activity in the brain and to decrease the heart rate, while urban views are associated with increased muscular tension,” says Logan.
His advice: mix it up! Spend time in an outdoor green space one day and head for water the next. “You can still put this into practice if you live in an urban area, since most cities are built near water and have running and bike paths,” he says. “You can alternate between parks and the water, and take an occasional trip to more rural or mountainous settings, too,” he adds. Just like your body adapts to doing the same workout over time, the mind adapts to seeing the same scenery. “Even the effects of natural environments eventually wear off, but if you spend time in diverse outdoor settings, you’ll continue to reap the benefits,” he says.
Engage Your Senses
To further amp up the positive effects of training outdoors, focus on your awareness. “Mindfulness adds a whole other layer of benefits,” says Logan. In Japan, there is a practice called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which involves walking in nature while taking in your surroundings with all of your senses. As a testament to its effects on the brain, a 2012 study found that subjects with depressive disorders who took a 50-minute walk through a wooded park performed significantly better on a memory test than after strolling through an urban setting, reports the Journal of Affective Disorders. Trekking through the park also produced a greater improvement in mood compared to walking the city streets. But in order to experience the benefits of “forest bathing,” mindfulness is key. “When practicing Shinrin-yoku, engage with your surroundings as if you’ve never seen them before. Squat down to the ground and notice if there’s any animal life. Look up and see what’s in the trees,” says Logan. In other words, use all of your senses to experience your environment. What do you see, hear, touch and smell?
Becoming more mindful during your outdoor workouts can also keep you safe and help you achieve your fitness goals. “In addition to thinking about your surroundings, feel what’s going on in your body,” advises Selhub. “For instance, when you run or squat a certain way, notice the changes in your hips or ankles, and see how it feels when you make a slight adjustment to your form.” Also, pay attention to how you adjust your cadence or form to changes in the terrain beneath your feet — maybe you run one way on rocks or pebbles, another way when you’re on dirt, and yet another way on a path covered with leaves. This increased body awareness can make you less likely to get injured. “With all of your senses activated, you’re in the moment of what’s happening in your body and around you,” says Selhub. “You’ll move faster and better, and with your mind-body systems in sync, you’ll be less likely to get hurt.”