The (Extra) Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

We know exercise is good for our body. Physical activity helps your muscles, heart, blood and lungs, and just about everything else in your body. Recently there has been research that indicates if you do your exercise routine in nature, you may receive some additional mental health benefits.  A number of studies have previously reported participants who were selected to exercise outdoors scored significantly higher on subsequent psychological tests–vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside. However, these smaller observational studies have not provided enough quantitative data to make strong conclusions about the effects.

Recently, Richard Mitchell in “Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments?” conducted the first large scale national study, and was able to provide convincing evidence that physical activity in natural environments—opposed to other settings—is associated with a reduction in the risk of poor mental health.

As the author states “The analyses showed an independent association between regular use of natural environments for physical activity and a lower risk of poor mental health. Regular users of Woods/forest for physical activity were at about half the risk of poor mental health of non-users. Each additional use of any natural environment per week was associated with about a 6% lower risk of poor mental health.”

The research is still trying to establish causal linkages of why, physiologically, exercising outside might improve dispositions . Perhaps it is the exposure to direct sunlight? Or maybe the fresh air? But regardless we have strong evidence that exercising outside amplifies the mental health benefits.

Bottom line: next time your lacing up your running shoes you may want to forego the gym and head into nature.

Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments?
Richard Mitchell
Social Science & Medicine

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