Lecturer and Lead Sport and Exercise Scientist at St Mary’s University, Paul Hough, has written an article on the benefits of physical activity in the outdoors environment. Paul’s twitter handle is: @the_hough
In recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the positive impact of exposure to natural environments on mental wellbeing. For example, exposure to views of nature can improve health and wellbeing by reducing stress and mental fatigue (Hartig et al., 1991). Over the past six decades numerous studies have demonstrated that engaging in regular physical activity improves mental and physical health, which is why health organisations, such as the UK Department of Health, recommend adults engage in a minimum of 150 minutes physical activity per week.
The benefits of exposure to natural environments and regular exercise has led to suggestions that there may be an additive benefit of exercising outdoors beyond the benefits experienced following indoor based exercise (Pretty et al., 2003). This theory has been supported in a number of studies where participants have reported greater improvements in mental wellbeing immediately following outdoor exercise compared to indoor. For example, walking outdoors was associated with improved ratings of mood compared to walking on a treadmill in a gym (Teas et al., 2007). Similar studies have also reported greater feelings of vitality and enjoyment as well as a reduction in tension, tiredness and stress (Thomson Coon et al., 2011). Outdoor exercise can also reduce the risk of poor mental health to a greater extent than exercise performed indoors (Mitchell, 2012).
There are a number of potential reasons why exercising outdoors may provide more psychological and physical health benefits to indoor exercise, these include:
- Focus: a change of scenery can reduce feelings of monotony often associated with excessing indoors e.g. running on a treadmill. Natural environments have greater novel and diverse objects of interest that nourish and replenish attention and improve focus (Kaplan, 1995).
- Social interaction: people tend to interact more with others when outdoors
- Vitamin D: increased exposure to sunlight can increase levels of vitamin D. This vitamin is important for immune function and also the maintenance of bone growth and repair.
- Adherence: many people exercise in gyms in favour of outdoors. However, adherence to gym based exercise is often poor. Indeed, previous research suggests that up to 40% of gym membership are cancelled within a year of joining (Mintel, 2005). Although evidence is lacking, the additional health and wellbeing benefits of performing physical activity outdoors may promote greater long-term adherence to regular exercise (Hillsdon & Thorogood, 1996).
Where to exercise?
The type of outdoor environment is important, as performing exercise in natural ‘green’ areas such as parks and forests can amplify the positive psychological benefits compared to exercise performed in urban landscapes. For example, a Japanese study indicated that walking in a forest resulted in lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as lower blood pressure compared to walking in a city environment (Park et al., 2011).
What type of exercise?
Most studies have focused on cardiovascular based activities such as walking, running and cycling. However, other outdoor activities, particularly sports and outdoor based exercise classes are likely to have similar if not greater benefits.
Whilst there are numerous benefits of exercising outdoors it is important to recognise that exercising indoors also has advantages, such as protection from the elements (poor weather and high levels of pollution). Adverse weather can lead to an easy excuse not to exercise, particularly in the UK! Furthermore, exercising within a gym also affords better access to specialist equipment and expertise, which can improve the effectiveness of certain types of exercise, such as resistance training. Therefore, before cancelling the gym membership, the best approach to exercise is to include both indoor and outdoor exercise and experience the benefits of both.
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Hartig, T. Mang, M. & Evans, G. W. (1991). Restorative effects of natural environment experience. Environment & Behaviour, 23, 3–26.
Hillsdon, A., & Thorogood, M. (1996). A systematic review of physical activity promotion strategies. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 30, 84-89.
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169–182.
Mitchel, R. (2012). Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments? Social Science & Medicine, 1-5.
Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2011). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health Preventative Medicine, 15(1), 18-26.
Pretty, J.; Griffin, M.; Sellens, M.; Pretty, C. (2003). Green Exercise: Complementary Roles of Nature, Exercise and Diet in Physical and Emotional Wellbeing and Implications for Public Health Policy. University of Essex.
Teas, J., Hurley, T., Ghumare, S., & Ogoussan, K. (2007). Walking Outside Improves Mood for Healthy Postmenopausal Women. Clinical Medicine Insights: Oncology, 1, 35-43.
Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M.H. (2011). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(5), 1761-1772.