The Benefits of outdoor exercise and how to get started

For much of human history, getting outside was not a luxury – it was unavoidable. Nowadays, we have to make time to walk around the block. Like so many other things, we see the value of nature by its absence. In this post, I list and explain the many benefits of outdoor exercise, sometimes called green exercise

As you might have guessed, we here at Explore New Trails believe that the more nature you have in your day, the better. Whether you are spending all summer backpacking, or you are just taking a stroll through your neighborhood or local park in the evening, getting outside is good for you.

Physical Health

Dynamic Strength & Agility

Exercising outdoors contributes to the development of dynamic strength. It is one of the consequences of dealing with a variable terrain and other factors, such as wind, that you usually find outdoors. When hiking through the woods, for example, you will have to navigate rocks and logs, step around holes, and climb up slippery slopes.

The challenges of a forest trail engage the muscles and ligaments of the ankle and calf and help to strengthen them. And, one of the best ways to develop ankle stability is to hike easy and moderate trails until you are ready for the difficult ones.

man climbing steep rocky trail next to a large dam waterfall

Although it might seem counterintuitive, exercising outdoors can lead to less chance of injury because your body is able to develop in response to a dynamic environment.

Running outside offers similar benefits, even if you are not on a forest trail. Treadmills offer only so much when simulating an incline, and running on a treadmill has even been shown to shorten your stride. Not only will this reduce the amount of calories you burn, it may also lead to unbalanced strength in your ankles, legs, and core, and contribute to knee and hip problems later in life. But, taking your workout outside will increase your balance and agility, since your body has the space and freedom to use correct posture and follow its natural movements. 

Longer Workouts

In general, outdoor workouts tend to last longer due to several factors. For one, people report that the environment is more engaging than the unchanging view inside your home or gym, so it is easier to lose track of time. What’s more, researchers have shown that running outdoors demands more energy than the same distance covered on a treadmill.

Also, if you go for a run, you can’t just turn off the treadmill and sit down – you have to walk back.

Faster Results

Cyclists often face greater resistance when riding against the wind, and this can affect runners as well. However, running with the wind also offers advantages. As Pete McCall explains for the American Council on Exercise, “A good tailwind can help you move a little faster, which activates the larger type II muscle fibers responsible for strength and definition.”

And of course, working out outdoors in the winter forces your body to burn more calories to stay warm – a great benefit during a time of year when it is generally harder to keep off the pounds.

woman sitting with legs crossed in a field meditating

Holistic Benefits

It’s easy to forget that exercising outdoors can offer incredible benefits to your body beyond losing fat weight and gaining muscle strength.

Immune Health

The practice of deliberately entering the woods to find relief from stress and to commune with nature became popular in Japan in the 1980s and is now known in the United States as “forest bathing.”

People have known for a long time that exposure to the natural world can bring healing to the body, but until recently, scientific research had not confirmed this cultural wisdom. Several studies have now shown that naturally occurring phytoncides emitted by trees increase the number of natural killer cells and anti-cancer proteins in the human body.

What’s more, these studies also showed that the benefits of a prolonged walk in the woods can last for seven days.

Skin Health

Arelene Semeco from healthline.com points out that regular exercise augments blood flow and improves your cells’ ability to regenerate and fix themselves. As a result, moderate exercise is key in delaying the signs of aging due to oxidative stress, both on the interior and exterior of the body.

Additionally, she writes that it has become clear that regular exercise can reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Combining the benefits of regular exercise and the advantages of exercising outside, you have the opportunity to impact your health in a profoundly positive way.

Lung Health

One aspect of health that people often ignore is the quality of air they are breathing.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “…a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.”. Given that people spend greater amounts of time indoors rather than outside, this is a serious concern, but you have the ability to do something about it.

While you may work in an office building and sleep and eat in your home, consider the time you set aside for exercise as an opportunity to care for your lungs and improve your overall well-being.

man biking down trail in the autumn wearing a helmet

Bone Health

It should be obvious that by spending more time outside, you will be exposed to greater amounts of sunlight, even if you live in a cloudy part of the world. While you can supplement your diet with Vitamin D, the best (and cheapest) way to get this nutrient is by spending time in the sun. Your body produces this vitamin on its own, and by maintaining proper levels of Vitamin D, you help your body form and maintain its bones. Deficiencies in Vitamin D, on the other hand, can lead to severe health problems later in life.

You should also know that sunlight raises the amount of serotonin that your brain produces, which, to put it simply, will make you feel more happy. This becomes all the more beneficial in the winter time, when the days are shorter and people typically spend more time indoors.

Heart Health

And finally, we could not leave the holistic benefits of outdoor exercise without mentioning the heart.

In a study of 280 individuals in 24 different forests across Japan, researchers found that those individuals who were exposed to forest instead of city had lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol, along with slower heart rates and less sympathetic nervous system activity. This study even accounted for variations between “walking and viewing” periods among individuals.

people swimming in a lake surrounded by pine trees

Mental Health

Focus, Cognition, & Creativity

If the physical benefits are not enough for you, working out in nature provides fantastic advantages for the health of your brain.

Taking a walk, hiking through the woods, climbing a mountain, skiing, kayaking, cycling, swimming, and all the other activities available to you outside expose your senses to a greater range of experiences. Your brain and nervous system find greater stimulation in the elements, and this makes your time outside more interesting and engaging than the hour you might spend inside staring at the wall or tv.

Furthermore, physical activity in the open air has been shown to improve and preserve cognitive plasticity in older adults, as well as in “modifying metabolic, structural, and functional dimensions of the brain.”

With increased stimulation, better focus, and improved memory, people who take their workouts beyond the walls of their house will find it is easier to be creative, and when adding improved rest during sleep, they will generally be more productive and feel better the rest of the day.

Emotional Health

Well-being

One of the greatest benefits that people report when practicing “green exercise” is the boost in well-being. You don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail to feel the benefits, either – a simple walk through a public park will do, and some studies have shown an even greater effect when water, such as a lake, is present.

Furthermore, a person who exercises outside will typically be exposed to more sunlight, which increases the body’s production of Vitamin D. Greater amounts of this vitamin have been linked to improvements in mood and reduced depression.

Social Connection

Whether you are going for a walk or a run, taking a ride on your bike through the community, swimming in a lake, gardening, or climbing up a mountain, you will find that training outside creates opportunities to meet new people, especially people who live nearby. Staying connected to your community and building positive connections with others will greatly benefit your emotional health.

man and woman strolling down a path through the trees

What’s more, if you have a family, making the time to get outside will give you a chance to spend quality time with your loved ones. The benefits of outdoor activities for children are nearly endless, and there’s no better way for children to burn off some energy than by exploring the great outdoors. And for self-esteem and mood, a multi-study analysis showed that the young often benefit the most.

Additional Benefits

Aside from the physical, mental, and emotional advantages of green exercise, you will save money by avoiding the costs of gym membership fees. State forests and community parks are usually free to access.

Additionally, the hassle of driving to the gym and finding available equipment turns many people off, but with nature at your doorstep, you can avoid these headaches. And the time you would spend traveling to and from the gym can be added to your workout or spent preparing a healthy, post-workout meal.

Green exercise is convenient and provides a low-cost, flexible solution to those who want to avoid the trouble of going to a gym.

5 Tips to Get Started Exercising Outdoors

man running on a trail overlooking rolling hills

So what’s the secret to getting started?

When preparing to train outside, it is important to prepare for some variables you won’t find in a gym:

Tip #1 – Protect yourself from the sun. Although you want to increase your Vitamin D, you should avoid getting burned and protect your eyes from harmful ultra-violet radiation. Take sunglasses or wear a hat, and make a small investment in a UV-resistant shirt.

Tip #2 – Stay hydrated. The heat may place a greater strain on your body depending on your location, and you might not be able to step into air conditioning and get a drink. Take a water bottle, and drink plenty of water before and after your workout.

Tip #3 – Use quality gear. An initial investment in dependable, durable gear will make your outdoors experience more safe and enjoyable. And as an added precaution, choose bright clothing. If you are running or hiking in the woods, fluorescent orange can be important during various hunting seasons. In general, fluorescent clothes will help others see you and reduce the chance of an accident.

Tip #4 – Make green exercise a lifestyle. Incorporate it into your daily routine and find ways to substitute what you would normally do for something in nature. Instead of a Sunday drive, take a walk around the nearest reservoir. Or, instead of that Zumba class, go for a winter hike.

Tip #5 – Take advantage of the morning and evening. Depending on your location, the middle of the day may be too hot or simply too busy, but temperatures will be more congenial to your workout. Also, getting up early for a twenty minute run or walk outside will supercharge your day, and fresh air before bed will help you sleep.

woman's legs walking down a road with trees in background

Get out there!

You don’t need more studies and statistics to understand the benefits of green exercise – get outside and see for yourself! You’ll feel better and think clearer, and before long, you’ll see changes in your fitness, too! And if you have any tips you’d like to share, let us know below!

Show Sources
  1. Barton, Jo & Jules Pretty. “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis.” Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 10, 3947-3955. Publication Date:March 25, 2010. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es903183r
  2. Bherer, Louis. “Cognitive plasticity in older adults: effects of cognitive training and physical exercise.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 13 March 2015. https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nyas.12682
  3. Brockett, Claire L. & Graham J. Chapman. “Biomechanics of the ankle.” Orthopaedics and Trauma, Volume 30, Issue 3, Pages 232-238. June 2016. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877132716300483
  4. Fellen, Rebecca E., et al. “Comparison of Lower Extremity Kinematic Curves During Overground and Treadmill Running.” J Appl Biomech, 26(4): 407-414. Nov. 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3266869/
  5. Fitzgerald, Sunny. “The Secret to Mindful Travel? A Walk in the Woods.” National Geographic. 18 Oct. 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/lists/forest-bathing-nature-walk-health/
  6. Goyanes, Christina. “Take Your Workout Outside!” Women’sHealth. June 21, 2012. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/a19958597/outdoor-fitness/
  7. Kerr, David C. R., et al. “Associations between Vitamin D Levels and Depressive Symptoms in Healthy Young Adult Women.”Psychiatry Res. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2016 May 30. Published in final edited form as: Psychiatry Res. 2015 May 30; 227(1): 46–51. Published online 2015 Mar 5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25791903Marks, Lynn. “What is Vitamin D?” Everyday Health. 11 May 2016. https://www.everydayhealth.com/drugs/vitamin-d
  8. Kirk-Sanchez, Neva J. & Ellen L McGough. “Physical exercise and cognitive performance in the elderly: current perspectives.”  Clin Interv Aging. 2014; 9: 51–62. Published online 2013 Dec 18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24379659
  9. Li, Q, et al. “Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins.” Int J Imunopathol Pharmacol, 21(1): 117-27. Jan. 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18336737
  10. McCall, Pete. “6 Benefits of Exercising Outdoors.” American Council on Exercise. 22 April 2016. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/5911/6-benefits-of-exercising-outdoors
  11. Nall, Rachel, RN, BSN, CCRN. “What are the Benefits of Sunlight?” Healthline. 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#mental-health
  12. Park, BJ, et al. “The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan.”  Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 18–26. Published online 2009 May 2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19568835
  13. Semeco, Arlene, MS, RD. “The Top 10 Benefits of Regular Exercise.” Healthline. 10 Feb. 2017. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-benefits-of-exercise#section5
  14. St. Lifer, Holly. “7 Reasons to Sweat Outdoors.” WebMD. 2020. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/7-reasons-to-sweat-outdoors#1
  15. “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. 3 Oct. 2019. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality
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  17. Weingus, Leigh. “6 Science-Backed Reasons Outdoor Exercise Is So Much Better For You.” MindBodyGreen. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/why-you-should-take-your-workout-outside

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2 thoughts on “The Benefits of outdoor exercise and how to get started”

  1. Thanks to Andrew for posting this excellent summary of the benefits of getting outdoors and being active. It is a timely blog, as lots of us would benefit from “more nature, more activity” while coping with the pandemic.

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