The Outdoor Effect
Science Says Outdoor Workouts Provide A Mental Boost Indoor Workouts Do Not
If you’re still breathing — and chances are real good that you are — your body needs exercise to stay healthy. If like me you choose to run, here’s some important news: Multiple studies have concluded that running can boost your mental health.
I know what you’re thinking: That’s old news. You’re right. It should come as no surprise that running gives a mental health boost. What may come as a surprise is that the boost is greatest if the runs take place outdoors rather than indoors, even when you expend equal amounts of energy. I know from experience.
I moved to Chicago during one of the region’s epic winters. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know much about running in subzero cold back then. But no worries. While I searched for an apartment, my employer put me up in a temporary residence that had access to an indoor fitness center.
When I first tried the running track, I swore that I’d never run outside in conditions only an Eskimo could love. I was wrong. After only one week of running the same 1/8-mile loop over and over again, I got bored. Even a little depressed. It must have been 5 degrees below outside with the wind chill, but I longed for the fresh air. So I layered up and in spite of the frigid weather, or because of it, I headed outside, thinking it can’t be that bad or alpine ski racers would drop like flies. With a balaclava, mittens and lots of wool protecting the rest of me I actually got warm pretty fast once I got going.
I don’t know about you, but getting my blood pumping outdoors is far less strenuous to me than getting it pumping indoors. The wind blowing through my hair combined with the changing landscape lets me hit that runner’s high. Instead of fighting to remember how many laps I’ve completed, my mind is free to reconstruct the past or invent the future. I’m alone and it is easy to be a world away. I can cruise the curves of New England, where I began my career, or roll over the hills of Western North Carolina, where I was raised. Unlike running laps on a monotonous indoor track, I’m in the open air and my imagination is clear to drift.
But not everyone is like me and many people prefer exercising indoors. Ask any gym junkie what the pros are and you’ll hear that the gym is climate controlled, that it has a full suite of state-of-the-art equipment, that it offers daily group classes and personal consultation, yada yada.
That’s all true. There’s no doubt that the gym is convenient. If you prefer the treadmill to the track, there’s that handy place to keep your water bottle. And you’ve got your showers and lockers. But that mood boost you get outdoors can’t be replicated indoors on a treadmill or a running track. Trust me.
Among the scientific evidence supporting this argument is a study conducted by a team of Scottish researchers from the University of Glasgow and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. Using data from a Scottish Health Survey, the team decided to test whether 1,890 people who were physically active in various outdoor and indoor settings would experience a positive mood boost while exercising outside, without knowing that exercising outside could be the reason. The researchers were surprised when they found that activities like walking, running and cycling in natural environments were actually associated with a reduction in poor mental health to a greater extent than activities in indoor environments like a gym.
To take a quote from study lead Professor Rich Mitchell posted on the University of Glasgow website, “I wasn’t surprised by the findings that exercise in natural environments is good for your mental health, but I was surprised by just how much better it is for your mental heath to exercise in a green place like a forest, than in other places like a gym.”
What the Glasgow study revealed to me is something I have known since my first week in Chicago. The gym may be a convenient place to work out, but a run outside provides a larger mental health payoff.
A number of other studies have produced similar results to the Glasgow study. One published in the journal Extreme Physiology & Medicine said “…exercising outdoors appears to be more beneficial to mental health over indoor activities.” Similarly, a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being concluded that working out in nature as compared to working out inside tends to provide an added value and “…repeated exercise in nature is, in particular, connected to better emotional well-being.”
Cool right? But for those who still aren’t convinced, in new research from the University of Innsbruck in Austria published just a couple of months ago in PLOS One, scientists claim that the mood scores of 40 healthy men and women exercising outdside was much higher than when they did the same workout on a treadmill.
For this study, researchers asked the participants to fill out questionnaires about their health before completing three specific 3-hour workouts: hiking a mountain, working out on an inclined treadmill in a gym, and sitting together on couches with computers and magazines. It turned out that the treadmill won out over sitting around for three hours, but almost all participants reported that exercising outdoors felt less strenuous to them than their time on the treadmill, suggesting that being outside made them happier and more relaxed. You may want to keep this study in mind before spending hundreds of dollars on a gym membership.
Before I end this piece and hit publish, I have to refer to a story I wrote a few weeks ago called “How Many Seconds of Two Minutes Are You?” in which I admitted that I am very guilty of doing everything I can to cram 12 hours’ worth of work into 8 hours. Truthfully, I checked my email five times, sent four IMs, completed a survey for Thrive Global, and searched for a new Italian restaurant on Google while putting the finishing touches on this story. But I know what kind of person I am. And that’s why I can’t reiterate “allow yourself to relax” enough. I should take my own advice because I’m terrible at it. And that’s mostly why I run.
Unfortunately many people find it difficult to fit exercise of any type into their routine. Their typical day consists of waking up and sitting. Sitting in the car. Sitting at work. Sitting on the way home. And the worst sedentary activity of them all, as reported by Medscape, sitting in front of the television.
Does this sound familiar? If it does, you may want to take a look at the American Heart Association’s advisory on the ills of sitting, after which you may get the urge to lace up those running shoes and take them for a spin. That doesn’t mean you have to take up sprinting to improve your mental health. But it does mean a slow steady run, or even a brisk walk, at least three times a week.
Of course, you may hate running so much that if something bad was chasing you, you’d stand still and let it catch you. Or maybe you have an injury and can’t run. In either case, my suggestion is to find another way to get moving. From walking and stair climbing, to swimming and cycling, they all can get your blood pumping. Remember it only takes a few minutes a day. And if all else fails, just become a weekend warrior. A recent study from Loughborough University in the UK, reported by The Guardian, found that people who squeeze their workouts into the weekend can benefit almost as much as those who exercise more often.
So if you’ve pretty much been planted on seat cushions most of your adult life and are ready to drop everything and start moving, remember — science says people who exercise outdoors are likelier to be happier than those who don’t. On the other hand, if you already exercise regularly, but indoors, don’t be afraid to put that gym membership on hold. Like I said, you’ll save several hundred dollars and score a mood boost taking it outside.