Take it outside: 10 great reasons to exercise outdoors

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Spending time in nature brings increased levels of health, healing, harmony and happiness. Also, it’s in the natural world where a person can feel, powerfully, the presence of God. That may be why Jesus did the majority of His teaching outdoors.

In order to remain physically and spiritually fit, more activity should be done outside. Here are 10 great reasons to “take it outside” and exercise in the beauty of nature.

1. The benefits are diverse and immense

After systematically analysing a wide variety of existing studies, researchers at the UK’s Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry came to this conclusion: compared to indoor exercise, physical activities done in natural environments produced “greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement” as well as “decreases in tensions, confusion, anger and depression”. Furthermore, participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor exercise and also indicated that they’d be more likely to repeat the activity.

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2. The benefits are immediate

Recently, researchers explored the question, “How much green exercise produces the greatest improvement in mood and sense of personal wellbeing?” Here’s the very good news for people who are busy and crunched for time: a mere five minutes of outdoor exercise benefits mental health. Jules Pretty and Jo Barton, researchers at the University of Essex, analysed 10 studies done on 1252 people of different ages, genders and mental health conditions. The studies showed that as little as five minutes of physical activity in nature led to mental and physical health improvements. The activities studied included walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating and horse riding.

Interestingly, the greatest health changes took place in the young and the mentally ill, but people of all ages and social groups were helped. All natural environments were beneficial, including parks in highly urban centres. Outdoor areas with water resulted in additional benefits. Pretty and Barton concluded that activity in natural areas decreases the risk of mental illness and improves the sense of wellbeing.

3. You’ll appreciate the view

Veteran actor Tom Selleck says, “Sweating outdoors sure beats sitting on a stationary bike staring at my navel.” Rather than being locked to a television screen or looking at the same tired walls and ceilings, outdoor exercise brings to your vision the bright sun, a brilliant blue sky, soft clouds, rainbows, trees, grass, birds, butterflies and a variety of other distinctive creatures. The Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that “in all things of nature there is something of the marvellous”.

4. Vision health improves

Spending more time outdoors can lead to improved vision. In Australia, about 17 per cent of people suffer from myopia, aka nearsightedness.

The popular explanation for this disorder is too much “close work”, such as staring at books or screens. However, the cause may also be due to too much time indoors.

In China, where myopia rates are very high (31 per cent overall—up to 80 per cent among tertiary students), a team of researchers conducted a study that showed that children who spent more time outdoors had a lower risk of myopia. They worked with 12 schools over three years, which included 1900 first-grade students, aged six and seven. Half the schools assigned their first-graders to an extra period of outside recess for every day of the school year. The other half did not. At the end of three years, the outdoor group had a nearly 10 per cent lower incidence of myopia.

5. Happiness gets triggered in the brain

Something as simple as merely looking out in nature activates parts of the brain associated with happiness and balance. That’s according to a study done at South Korea’s Chonnam National University. MRI scans showed that people who saw images of mountains, forests and other natural landscapes experienced heightened activity in those parts of the brain associated with a positive outlook, emotional stability and happy memories.

6. The air is better

A study done on fitness across Portugal and Holland revealed that indoor air often contains high levels of airborne dust, formaldehyde and carbon dioxide, especially during evening aerobics-type classes when many people were packed inside small spaces. Researchers warned that these pollutants can lead to asthma and other respiratory problems over time and that the high levels of carbon dioxide may contribute to bodily fatigue and cognitive sluggishness. These dangers increase in fitness centres because people breathe more heavily while doing their exercises, pulling the pollutants deeper into their lungs.

7. Cancer-fighting cells become energised

The Japanese are so fond of outdoor activity that they call it shinrin yoku—forest bathing. They intuitively know that being outside near trees brings healing to the body. Now, researchers at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School have produced evidence verifying that wisdom. In one study, women who spent two to four hours in the forest on two consecutive days experienced a nearly 50 per cent increase in the activity of cancer-­fighting white blood cells.

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8. More positive thoughts and emotions

A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise revealed that people who walked on an outdoor track moved at a faster pace, but perceived that they had put in less effort. And they experienced more positive emotions than did those who walked on an indoor treadmill. Also, positivity increased for outdoor exercisers in rural settings more than it did for city dwellers who walked outdoors. For example, a study done in Scotland showed that people who walked through a rural area viewed their to-do lists as more manageable than those who walked on city streets.

9. More natural vitamin D

Rather than take a daily supplement of vitamin D, research published in the Environmental Health Perspectives Journal reveals that as little as 30 minutes in the sunlight can deliver nearly a day’s supply of vitamin D through skin absorption. Vitamin D in the body contributes to bone health, reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis and osteomalacia. In addition, vitamin D is believed to lower the risk of other diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.

Furthermore, the UV radiation that comes from sunlight on a daily basis can help reduce an overactive immune system for people with auto­immune conditions such as lupus and psoriasis.

This needs to be balanced with sun-smart strategies, of course, especially for people with fair skin living in Australia and New Zealand, where skin cancers are common.

10. Enjoyment increases while depression decreases

The next time you’re feeling down, don’t go to an indoor shopping mall. Simply get outside.

A study done in the United Kingdom compared the mental state of depressed people who took a walk in a park and a walk inside a shopping centre. It found that 71 per cent of those who walked in the park reported that their levels of depression decreased, compared to only 45 per cent of the group who walked inside the mall.

In addition, 22 per cent of the group who walked indoors reported their depression levels actually increased. The same study also found that 71 per cent of the participants who walked in the park reported feeling less tense, while only 50 per cent of the mall walkers felt that way.

Finally, an enormous 90 per cent of park walkers noted an increase in self-esteem compared to only 44 percent of participants who walked in the shopping centre.

Reap the rewards

As more and more evidence emerges, it seems clear that human beings are wired to benefit from nature—and nature responds!

This was something observed by the nineteenth century scientist and writer John Lubbock, who wrote, “All those who love Nature she loves in return, and will richly reward, not perhaps with the good things, as they are commonly called, but with the best things of this world, not with money and titles, horses and carriages, but with bright and happy thoughts, contentment and peace of mind.”


Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, community educator and the author of several books. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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