fitness · health

Green exercise and the health benefits of the great outdoors


I try to be a liberal about tastes and desires. Really I do. What you like is what you like and what I like is what I like. You can’t be wrong about what you like and I can’t be wrong about what I like.

Certainly I would never force anyone to pursue tastes and desires they don’t share. And I think it’s insisting on that line that actually makes me a liberal.

But sometimes people say they don’t like things and I can’t help but think they’re mistaken. In that case I wouldn’t force anyone to do something they don’t like but I might try to change their mind.

What’s an example of a mistaken preference? Here’s one example, the great outdoors. There are people who say they’re not outdoors people. They say they prefer being inside. But I think they’re wrong not to appreciate nature and the great outdoors. They’re missing out on a source of joy.

We’re human animals and we need the outdoors, I think. It’s essential to our health and well being.

What do the people who prefer the indoors say?

They say it’s too hot sometimes, too cold other times. It’s humid or damp or windy.They’ve gotten used to temperature controlled environments.

But there is a ton of evidence on the health benefits of outdoor experience and exercise.

Here are some of the benefits to ‘green exercise’ (as its advocates call it):

First, it’s pretty clear our physical training benefits when we work out outside. Running on a treadmill doesn’t compare to running outside. And the same is true for spin bikes versus real bicycles on the trail or on the road. Outside we face wind and hills and uneven terrain. It’s hard to duplicate these challenges in the gym.

Second, outdoor exercise also seems to have an impact on our well being. We are just happier when we exercise outside. Gretchen Reynolds, in one her columns for the New York Times,  writes, “In a number of recent studies, volunteers have been asked to go for two walks for the same time or distance — one inside, usually on a treadmill or around a track, the other outdoors. In virtually all of the studies, the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more and, on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside.” Read more here.

Here’s one recent study, reported in Science Daily. It’s a meta-study carried out by a team at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry and it analysed existing studies and concluded that there are benefits to mental and physical well-being from exercising outdoors. The study is published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“The study found that most trials showed an improvement in mental well-being: compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.” Read more in Science Daily here.

The Japanese even have a term for outdoor exercise designed to relieve stress. They call it “Forest Therapy” and you can read about that in Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Mornings.

Here’s an American researcher’s account of forest bathing’s effects on his blood pressure. He writes that he knew it improved because his blood pressure was measured at the start and at the finish of his walk. “We knew this because we were on one of Japan’s 48 official Forest Therapy trails, designated for shinrin-yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency. In an effort to benefit the Japanese and find nonextractive ways to use forests, which cover 67 percent of the country’s landmass, the government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004. It intends to designate a total of 100 Forest Therapy sites within 10 years. Visitors here are routinely hauled off to a cabin where rangers measure their blood pressure, part of an effort to provide ever more data to support the project.”

Certainly we should share the great outdoors with our children and make an effort to share experiences in nature with them. They haven’t developed preferences yet and we can teach them to like what’s best for them. Some of the studies cited above day that children now spend 90% of their time indoors. That isn’t good.

Me, I love the outdoors and for almost all activities prefer the outside version. I much prefer biking outside to either spin classes or the velodrome, though I loved the outdoor track in New Zealand. I love cross country skiing. I love trail walking and running with my dog. But I struggle with Canadian winters. These days I’m doing most of my exercise indoors: Aikido in the dojo, CrossFit in the gym, rowing indoors at the rowing club, and indoor soccer even. By this point in the winter I’m suffering from cabin fever and can’t wait to get back outside.

Ideally I’d live somewhere with a climate a bit better suited to spending more time outside–Arizona, New Zealand, Australia–but for now I’m anxiously awaiting Canadian spring. Soon, I hope.

If you want to know more you can also read about the health benefits of time spent outside in the newsletter of the Harvard Medical School: A prescription for better health: Go alfresco

You can watch nature on your computer, I suppose, but it’s just not the same.


11 thoughts on “Green exercise and the health benefits of the great outdoors

  1. I’m a slowly-reforming indoors-y person. When I was a kid, I loved to read, write, colour in, whatever – apart from one brief stint with horseback riding, I was very into “indoor” activities. I still hate camping and bugs and “wilderness”, but I’m slowly coming around. Once upon a time, I would refuse to exercise outside of my own home, but now I shudder at the thought of running on a treadmill. We can reform! 🙂 Granted, I’m still in an urban setting, but running down by the water and seeing the city wake up as the sun rises still feels very therapeutic.

  2. I like being outside, and do most of my running there, but I can see reasons why a person might really prefer to exercise inside. (First of all, I’ve never seen an outdoor weight room. While there are definitely strength exercises that can be done outside, you still have to go in if that’s the environment you want.) The most obvious reason is allergies: if you can’t breathe, you are not going to want to be doing anything aerobic! Another reason, even though I do prefer to run outside because it’s fun and there’s more to see, outside you do have to contend with uneven ground, where you might put one foot in a hole and twist your ankle or something. I enjoy running outside more, but I think I can go faster inside, because I don’t have to worry about compensating for terrain and making sure I don’t fall over or step in a hole.

  3. There’s a real, biologically measurable effect on blood pressure upon talking a walk in the forest. It is the forest specifically, not just by being outside. It would be very cool if some sort of Star Trek- style “holodeck” could be invented that would simulate forest-bathing. Imagine pressing a button on the treadmill and be instantly transported to a trail in the woods!

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