The Health Benefits of Outdoor Exercise
There is a lot to be said for exercising outdoors, and as time passes more research suggests that getting outside really is a better way to exercise for both physical and mental health.
“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” ~Plato
Society has changed a great deal in the last 50 years. People spend more time indoors, more money on junk food (processed TV dinners were only invented in the 1950s), more time sitting at desks and less time outside.
A new trend was highlighted a few years ago when the recessions started to bite. The University of Nottingham reported that Britons were swapping health clubs for the park.
The general trend seems to be more obesity, more depression, more cancer and more allergies, intolerances and a society that lives in fear of going outdoors. There was a time that it was healthy for children to be afraid of the dark, but they would play outdoors all day and come home for their tea. Now parents are fearful for their children to step outside on their own during day light hours. How is all this affecting our health?
University of Essex Green Exercise Study
The University of Essex has been studying the health benefits of Green Exercise for 8 years now (2011), and during this time they have determined that exercising outdoors brings many mental and physical health benefits.
“Our findings suggest that priority should be given to developing the use of various nature-based interventions (including facilitated green exercise) as therapeutic interventions – Green Care.”
Various research projects have shown that increasing outdoor activity leads to a reduction in cases of obesity, heart disease, hypertension and colon cancer. Also being more active encourages the growth of healthy muscle and bone which helps maintain mobility into older age.
The research and work done by Essex University team is published on their own GreenExercise.org website.
So, what sort of activities are best for green fitness? Some would say that anything outside is better than just indoor exercise.
Research by the University of Bangor also showed that there were health benefits of outdoor exercise that extended beyond mental health. People exercising in parks often have more energy than those that just exercise in the gym.
One of the benefits often quoted is that outdoor exercise provides more variety. Plodding along uniform pavements or performing the same repetitive rowing, elliptical and treadmill workout does not provide enough of a challenge for the muscles. Muscle memory takes over. Whereas outdoors the terrain is constantly changing, the ground is not flat and you have to stay alert.
Maybe the alertness factor is most important. Some people can almost switch off while on an elliptical, but you cannot do that while running through woodland or cycling in a park. This could also help improve mental health.
Children also benefit greatly from outdoor exercise and activities. Some researchers suggested that children should play in the dirt to be healthier. There are many healthy outdoor activities, such as Scouts, the Woodraft Folk and Bushcraft that organised outdoor activities for children.
Green Space, Urbanity, and Health
Another study has shown that people that live close to green areas are generally healthier than those that live in built up city environments. Although there are both mental and physical health improvements from living closer to nature, the biggest improvements are in mental health, especially depression and anxiety disorders.
Children also respond very well to living in a more rural area, with 21% of kids less likely to be depressed when they can play in a park or woodland close to home.
“It clearly shows that green spaces are not just a luxury but they relate directly to diseases and the way people feel in their living environments. Most of the diseases which are related to green spaces are diseases which are highly prevalent and costly to treat so policy makers need to realise that this is something they may be able to diminish with green spaces.” Researcher, Dr Jolanda Maas of the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam.
The main conditions that are improved when people live closer to nature are:
- Coronary heart disease
- Neck, shoulder, back, wrist and hand complaints
- Depression and anxiety
- Respiratory infections and asthma
- Migraine and vertigo
- Stomach bugs and urinary tract infections
- Unexplained physical symptoms
Walking and Hiking
Walking and hiking are excellent activities for all ages. Whether you are looking to lose some fat or get fitter, regular walking will certainly be beneficial. It improves your fitness and strengthens legs and core. Stability can become a problem later in life, simply walking every day can keep your legs, hips and knees in good condition. See our walking plan for some more ideas.
Cycling and Jogging
Some of the greenest forms of exercise are the simplest though. Just making an effort to go cycling or jogging in the countryside on a regular basis can allow you to get back in touch with nature. You become so much more aware of the seasons when spending quality time outdoors in the countryside throughout the year. Jogging around city streets is generally sunny, cloudy, raining or dark. There are no other indications of the passing of time or the seasons.
Circuit Training in the Park
A relatively new trend in fitness are military style boot camps which are often run by soldiers during their leave. Most take members through tradition circuit training exercises and obstacle courses. Some circuit training is designed to be done outside, one such workout is often called The Beast. It involves performing one intensive circuit training routine, which comprises of 12 exercises in a circuit that is repeated 3 times. We also provide a fun circuit below for you to try.
20 Minute Outdoor Workout
If you have no exercise equipment at home and are not a member of a gym or fitness club, then exercising outdoors makes even more sense. Outdoor workouts can be fast and effective. Ideally start to warm up before leaving the house and then jog to the location for the workout, so that your muscles and joints are all warmed up and ready to go. When it is cold you need to keep active the whole time.
For this you need to find a park with some children’s play equipment, such as climbing frames, monkey bars etc. This workout needs to be done early in the morning before the kids go out to play really!
The workout is really a classic circuit training routine which works the whole body. This is what you should do:
- Short shuttle sprints – 50 yards – run flat out, stop, turn, and go back.
- Hill Sprints – If your park is on a hill, run up it as fast as you can then walk/jog down
- Push Ups – Throw in push ups after each sprint, vary – palms wide apart, close together
- Walking lunges – these are a fantastic and yet simple way to work the legs
- Squats – Squats and squat jumps, or burpees.
- Mountain climbers – the classic alternate legged squat thrusts
How you order these exercises is really up to you. You could perform a sprint then a bodyweight exercise, sprint again, then do another. Or you could cycle through the exercises and then do the sprints as a final part of each circuit.
Keep the rests between exercises short, just 10 to 20 seconds. The idea is to work you whole body hard – it is a short, but highly intensive cardio session. This is a great way to boost your metabolism and burn more fat, and if done in the morning, it really sets you up for the day. One tip is to wake up, have a strong black coffee, and then go out and do this workout. The caffeine will give you a little extra energy and help with the exercise. The harder you push yourself, the quicker you burn fat and the fitter you get.
You do not have to be in the best of shape to start doing this. If you have not exercised for a while, just start slow. Moderate sprints, a few press ups and burpees at a time. This will soon get you fitter, and in each session you will be able to do more. The more you do, the better you get. If you join a boot camp exercise class, then this is the sort of workout you will be doing. Throw in some tire flipping, sandbag carrying and obstacle course style crawling, and climbing, and you have your very own boot camp workout.
Whether you do gentle activities such as gardening or conservation work, or intensive activities such as running and boot camp workouts, exercising outdoors really does seem to help improve both mental and physical health. Now is the time to get out and find a nice spot for some exercise.