The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Outdoor Workouts
There’s powerful magic in getting blue-sky exercise. A hike through a forest can make you feel connected with Mother Nature, and the crashing waves can offer some much-needed distraction on the last mile of your beach run. But an outdoor workout can also have monumental benefits for your mind and body.
“Nature has all kinds of unseen elements that are affecting us,” says Eva Selhub, M.D., a resiliency expert and a co-author of the book Your Brain on Nature (Buy It, $15, barnesandnoble.com). For example, “as we breathe in the negative ions at the seaside from the saltwater, they go directly to our brain and counteract the positive ions that come from computers and are causing fatigue.” That means however you’re exercising your muscles in an outdoor workout, a cascade of other body benefits is going on in the background.
The beach isn't the only place you can get these perks, either. One review of the science-backed health benefits of nature in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives listed more than a dozen perks of being outside, both for your mind (reduced stress, better sleep, improved mental health, greater happiness) and your body (reduced obesity, reduced diabetes, improved pain control — even better vision). It’s really because all your senses are immersed at once in a feel-good mode. “You have this vast landscape that is pleasing to the eye, the quiet rhythm of the waves, the feel of the sand on your feet, the refreshing air that you’re breathing in,” says Dr. Selhub.
Here's exactly how an outdoor workout can boost your health – inside and out.
1. The Elements Offer Their Own Training Perks
Sand is the fitness gift that keeps on giving. For plyometric activities like running or jumping, it translates to less impact — choose the strip where water and sand meet for best footing — and also about 30 percent more calorie burn than solid ground, says Paul O. Davis, Ph.D., a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. Plus, when you run barefoot on the sand, your form will naturally shift, striking the midfoot-forefoot sweet spot, which is more joint-friendly than a heel strike, says Davis.
In fact, in a study of female athletes at the University of Western Australia, switching their conditioning from grass to sand (for intervals, sprints, and scrimmages) increased their heart rate and training load and gave them a bigger boost in aerobic fitness within eight weeks, even though they reported less soreness and fatigue along the way.
For runners, even flat terrain requires more muscle to stride on than a treadmill. “You’d need to put the treadmill on at least a 0.5 incline to match outdoor running,” says Colleen Burns, the sourcing director for outdoor retailer Backcountry. “And a substantial wind could set back your mile time by about 12 seconds.” As for road cycling, she says aerodynamic drag accounts for 70 to 90 percent of the resistance felt when pedaling.
TL;DR: Just by taking your workout outside — whether you’re running, jumping, or biking — you’re boosting the burn.
2. You'll Enjoy Your Outdoor Workout Way More
Time seems to go at half-speed when you run on a treadmill, so much so that even a one-mile jog can feel mentally and physically draining. And according to a study published in PLOS One, the reason is likely linked to exercising indoors. Researchers divided 42 healthy adults into three groups: One group hiked outdoors for 45 minutes, another group walked on a treadmill indoors for 45 minutes, while the control group did nothing for a total of three hours over the course of the study. They then had participants rate their mood, feelings, and arousal. The results found that while both walking groups got way more benefits than the couch potatoes, the outdoor exercisers had the best experience.
The hiking group reported feeling more awake, energized, attentive, happy, and calm as well as having more positive emotions overall than did those on the treadmill. The hikers also said they felt less fatigued after their workout. Basically, the hikers' workout felt easier physically and mentally, even though outdoor hikers and indoor treadmill walkers did the same amount of exercise.
3. Outdoor Workouts Offer a Mental Health Boost
Anyone who's been out hiking (or biking, or swimming, or any other outdoor sport for that matter) likely isn't too surprised by these findings – they don't call it a "mountain high" for nothing! But what is it, exactly, about exercising outdoors that makes it feel so much better? It has to do with the powerful combination of exercise and exposure to nature, explains Martin Niedermeier, Ph.D., a professor of sport science at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and lead author of the paper. The physical activity is invigorating while seeing nature relieves stress. And the two together provide a benefit beyond either one alone.
For this reason, Niedermeier recommends not just doing an outdoor workout but going someplace you find beautiful and relaxing, with plenty of plants and water. "The positive effects are stronger the 'greener' or the 'more blue' the environment is perceived by the participants," he says.
In fact, “simply being outside in nature can help de-stress us, since it has been shown to lower salivary cortisol, one of the biomarkers of stress,” says Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, M.D., an integrative medicine adviser to AllTrails.com. “Research has also suggested that just five minutes in nature is all it takes for our brain to start thinking differently and for us to experience a more relaxed disposition.”
4. They Improve Your Overall Well-being
“We’re wired to coexist with nature,” says Dr. Selhub. "Being in the environment reduces the body’s stress-response reactivity, lowers inflammation, and improves the immune system.” Fit in 20 minutes outdoors daily and, after a while, you’ll reduce your body’s knee-jerk stress response. (Related: Science-Backed Ways That Getting In Touch with Nature Boosts Your Health)
What's more, banking at least 120 minutes a week in nature, whether in regular doses or in one long stretch, is associated with good health and well-being, according to a recent study of nearly 20,000 adults in the journal Scientific Reports. We spend up to 90 percent of our time indoors, according to research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, so physical contact with nature — hands on rock as you boulder, bare feet in grass — can make us feel more connected to the earth. “It opens the brain centers that make us feel like we’re part of something bigger,” says Dr. Selhub.
Feel the awe of looking at the ocean and, she says, “that heightening of the so-called love response — an increase in dopamine and serotonin — actually opens the brain to having bigger perception and better clarity.” (Try this 30-day Outdoor Workout Challenge for an excuse to get out there every day.)
5. Outdoor Workouts Help You Exercise Longer – and Get Stronger
A review of studies on green exercise in Extreme Physiology & Medicine says that being active outdoors “reduces perceived effort and allows individuals to work at higher workloads, which may help increase the amount of physical activity undertaken and motivation to continue.” Anna Frost, an ultra trail runner for the Icebreaker brand, agrees. “I use nature as my strength training,” she says. “There is a great energy out there."
Of course, it's not always possible to do an outdoor workout, and gyms have their upsides — protection from the elements when you need it, plus amenities like childcare, group classes, and personal training to name a few. But it's well worth your while to get sweaty with Mother Nature when you can.