This week marks the 43rd celebration of Earth Day. Organizations have been promoting various outdoor activities such as riding your bike to work, planting a tree, or even enjoying a Picnic for the Planet. All of these programs remind us to connect with the Earth. It’s not only healthy for the planet but it’s healthy for us, too.
In the spirit of celebrating and appreciating this amazing planet we call home, I’m going to recommend you do at least some of your exercise outside. Getting any kind of exercise is one of the best things you can do to boost your brain. But if you can possibly swing it, exercising outdoors provides many additional benefits. And spring is the perfect time of year to start a new fitness routine.
6 Reasons to Exercise Outdoors
Vitamin D Production
Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin, that our skin produces when exposed to sunlight. But between spending most of our time inside, wearing sunscreen, and living in northern latitudes, few people in North America and Europe get the sun exposure they need to produce adequate vitamin D. Give your body a chance to manufacture this brain-essential nutrient by exercising outdoors in the sun at least some of the time.
Getting the perfect amount of sunlight is complicated. It depends on your skin color, your latitude, time of year, and more, but generally 20 minutes of exposure to a large area of your body (like arms or legs) a few times a week will largely meet your needs.
Outdoor exercise is always more challenging physically and mentally than the indoor version. Bike outside and you’ll contend with wind, hills, potholes, and traffic whereas riding on an exercise bike is so boring you can do it with your eyes closed. Jogging on the beach will use more muscles in many different ways than jogging on your treadmill.
Studies found that people who exercise outdoors complete an extra 30 minutes per week. The majority of subjects also said they were more likely to stick with the outdoor activity in the future. (1)
Fun might have something to do with it!
You might guess that most people would find walking outside more enjoyable than walking on a treadmill. And science backs that up. Numerous studies have shown that test subjects who exercise outside report enjoying it more. (2)
But the positive effects went way beyond what might be expected. Studies found that outdoor groups scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression, and fatigue after walking outside. (3) Memory performance and attention spans improved by 20% after people spent an hour interacting with nature. (4) The scope of benefits is tremendous!
Exercising outside reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol more effectively than performing a similar activity inside.
The Japanese engage in Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” — an elegant way to describe spending time in the woods for therapeutic benefits. (5)
One weird way spending time in nature is healing is the smell of the woods. Aromatic plants releases phytoncides, chemicals that make a forest smell so good. These substances can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and boost your immune system. (6, 7)
Neuroscientists are discovering immersion in nature is a key to optimal brain health. Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality is a wonderful book that explores how our brains are inextricably linked to the natural world, and how we can benefit from enhancing that connection.
Most of us are exposed to way too much artificial light at night and too little natural sunlight during the day. This unnatural pattern of light exposure contributes to short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, mood swings, irritability, depression, as well as insomnia.
Ways to Get Outside More
I’m a huge fan of walking. It’s the only exercise I’ve done consistently over the years. Taking 10,000 steps per day is the gold standard of walking goals. While walking around your house and job count, try to take at least half of these steps outside.
Besides setting out to take a walk for exercise, try incorporating outside walking into your lifestyle. Take a walk on your lunch break. Look for errands you can accomplish on foot such as going to the bank, library, or stores.
Move Your Exercise Equipment
Who says your exercise equipment has to stay inside! You can easily use your yoga mat, foam roller, weights, or resistance bands outside. If you have a covered porch or deck you can even consider moving serious pieces of exercise equipment like your rowing machine or treadmill outside for at least part of the year.
Even setting up your exercise area by a window or patio door can give you some of the benefits of being outside — a view, sunlight, and fresh air if you open the window. You may find you look forward to exercising more if you aren’t stuck in the basement or in a corner of a room.
Not all outdoor activities have to be strenuous to contribute to your outdoor time. Some gentle activities you can add to your routine are bird watching, metal detecting, geocaching, playing Frisbee, or nature photography. Anything that gets you outside and moving is all good!
Therapy in the Garden
Gardening may be the best outdoor activity of all. Studies found that people in their 60s and 70s who gardened regularly had a significantly lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners. Gardening is a winning combination of physical and mental activity along with creativity and mindfulness.
If you are growing edibles, you have the added satisfaction of eating healthy produce you’ve grown yourself.
Simply being in a garden can be therapeutic. Many residential homes for people with dementia have gardens on their grounds designed so that residents can walk through them without getting lost. The sights, smells, and sounds of the garden are said to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
I’m definitely an outdoor gal. My idea of a good day is one that’s largely been spent outside. Besides my daily walk or bike ride, I strive to get extra outdoor time by eating, reading, taking phone calls, doing yoga, and meditating outside whenever possible.
What are some of your favorite ways of getting outside more?
Science-based yoga program
Created and taught by an exercise physiologist, this program offers a unique perspective. Benefits include improved mood, reduced stress, better sleep, more energy, fewer aches and less pain.