Article authored by Readout Health with editorial oversight from Chief Medical Officer, Naomi Parrella, M.D.
You probably already know that along with nourishing your body with health-promoting foods, getting a regular dose of physical activity is essential for your overall long-term well-being. Moving your body consistently can help manage your weight, reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and simply may help you to live longer.
Unfortunately, many Americans fall short when it comes to exercising, and instead they’re spending too much time in front of their screens. It’s estimated that people ages 15 and older spend, on average, more than 3 hours daily playing video games, watching TV, or using a computer – and this is in addition to the time they spend on screens for school or work.
If you’ve been spending less time than you’d like on the move, there’s some encouraging news: it’s not too late! With an array of activities to choose from, you’re bound to find a few that will keep you engaged, having fun, and coming back for more. And now that warmer weather is finally here, what better way to keep yourself healthy than taking your exercise outdoors? Turns out that exercising outside provides more than just sunlight and fresh air – it offers a number of benefits that you just can’t get from exercising inside.
The case for working out outdoors
Scientists have known for decades that being outdoors, especially outdoors in nature, can be physiologically relaxing, restore mental capacity, and elevate mood. Even spending just 20 minutes a day connecting with nature is shown to lower stress hormone levels. Nature can benefit the mind in two critical ways: by relieving mental fatigue and restoring focus, and by promoting a sense of calm and well-being.
Humans as a species are biologically designed to feel connected to nature. Even the simple act of looking at natural landscapes is enough to restore a person’s physiology after experiencing stress, conjuring positive emotions of calm, wonder, and pleasure. How does this happen? Exposure to nature activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for lowering cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. These powerful effects promote a sense of relaxation and well-being, protecting against anxiety and depression.
A peaceful mood is not the only upside to spending time outdoors. Nature can also restore the mind’s ability to pay attention. The constant demands of modern life can often overwhelm a person’s ability to filter relevant information from non-relevant, draining the capacity to focus and perform tasks well. Looking at new landscapes within nature evokes a feeling of “being away” while clearing the mind. The fresh awareness that arises from nature’s uncluttered simplicity makes room for the ability to focus on tasks once again. One study reveals that concentration, cognitive control, and working memory all improve after walking through natural green space when compared with walking through a bustling city.
Given this wealth of promising evidence, it makes sense why outdoor activity is now more popular than ever among Americans, with almost half engaging in some type of physical activity outside. A workout session outdoors, sometimes called green exercise, allows you to combine a new activity with a natural, relaxing setting. This blend can actually help influence how you feel about your workout session. For example, natural scenery’s ability to elevate your emotions and positive attitude can lessen your perception of how intensely you’re working out, potentially lengthening the duration and frequency of your workout – and this can translate to some pretty impressive health outcomes. For example, one study found that people who stay active in their neighborhood park on a regular basis visit their doctor less frequently for chronic illness.
6 ways to move your body outdoors
While getting regular physical activity in any setting is great for your health, consider these 6 ways to take your workout outside and to the next level to up the fun factor, stay motivated, and amplify your exercise benefits.
Go for a brisk walk
In many ways, walking is an ideal exercise. It’s free. It’s easy to do. And people of all ages and fitness levels can do it. Maybe that’s why more Americans are walking these days than running. Luckily for walking-lovers, this activity can be seriously health-promoting. For starters, walking can regulate blood sugar, strengthen the heart by improving circulation, help stave off viruses and enhance immunity, and protect joints and ease joint pain. What’s more, walking is a natural mood enhancer, releasing feel-good endorphin hormones to the body. If lacing up your sneakers for a walk sounds dull on its own, remember that there are many novel ways to get your walk in each day, whether that be walking your dog, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, chatting with a friend while walking around the block, or parking your car far from the entrance in the parking lot.
Hit the hiking trail
Among other forms of exercise, hiking stands apart: it offers an invigorating workout engaging the entire body with time absorbed in nature. Like walking, hiking usually costs nothing, is accessible for people of all skill levels, and is low impact. It can also improve emotional health by boosting life satisfaction and creativity, all while providing a sense of accomplishment. But because a hiker’s entire body, particularly the thigh and calf muscles, must adapt to a trail’s ever-changing terrain, 28% more energy is used for hiking than regular walking. As a bonus, constant mental focus is required to navigate around stones, roots, and other hikers, giving your mind an intensive workout at the same time.
Get on the pickleball court
Dubbed “America’s fastest-growing sport,” pickleball is enjoying its day in the sun as a game that combines tennis, table tennis, and badminton. Pickleball is low-impact, easy to learn, and can be played either casually or as a competitive, quick-paced match. Most impressively, this game promotes health in a number of ways. For example, one 2018 study found that playing pickleball for only 6 weeks can lead to improvements in cholesterol numbers, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption. On top of this, pickleball is a social sport, fostering positive social interactions on the court. And despite the misconception that the game is favored by retirees, the average pickleball player is 38 years old – proving it to be a game beloved by people of all ages.
Hop on your bike
More Americans are cycling today than ever, a trend that’s promising due to the fact that cycling is linked with weight management, improved fitness, and less risk of chronic disease. For example, scientists found that this low-impact aerobic sport can boost cardiovascular functioning and lower the risk of developing heart disease by 46% for those who cycle regularly. And those who cycle for 3 months show a notable reduction in blood pressure. Cycling can improve mental and cognitive health as well, activating the brain’s cerebral cortex to boost balance and motor learning. Riding a bike also provides an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation at no cost, making it a practical, economical activity. Need inspiration for some fun on your bike? Check out the web for some creative ideas.
Play a round on the golf course
If you’re looking for a moderately intense activity that still elevates your fitness and offers the tranquility of seeing greenery, make your way to a golf course. Over 34 million players strong, the well-loved sport of golf continues to rise in popularity among Americans both young and old. This is promising, given the many mind and body benefits the game provides. When you play 18 holes, you can expect to walk around 5 miles and burn 2,000 calories, thanks to all the walking, bag carrying, and swinging you’ll do. Playing golf is also a fun way to enhance your social connections. One survey of golf enthusiasts found that joining friends or colleagues or spending time with family were two top reasons they took up the sport.
Bring your yoga mat outside
Prefer a more lowkey workout? Consider yoga. Yoga is known the world over for its restorative, relaxation-inducing qualities, but perhaps fewer people know that the practice doesn’t need to be relegated to the studio. Many enthusiasts bring their mat outdoors to reap the mental benefits of body awareness while immersed in nature. Soaking in the smells, sounds, and views of the outdoors will allow your mind to quiet and strengthen in a different way than you’re used to. And because you can’t rely on a quiet room and flat floor to maintain your poses, you’ll practice deepening your concentration skills and improving your balance as you adjust to a new environment and terrain. As a proven natural antidote for common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, yoga also provides an abundance of physical perks as well. Balance and flexibility are improved and inflammation is reduced among those who practice regularly, reducing the risk for several chronic diseases. Holding poses also helps strengthen bones and muscles, and emerging evidence suggests that yoga may also enhance immunity. If you’re interested in trying yoga outdoors, explore the offerings in your city. Many studios offer free classes during the warm season.