The Mental and Physical Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

Incorporating “green exercise” into your fitness routine comes with a host of advantages, such as reducing stress, improving the immune system, and even burning more calories!

Updated: Wednesday 26 October 2022

feeling happy after exercising outdoors

A proven method of maintaining a healthy mind and body is exercise, and exercising outside comes with a host of unique benefits. Whilst there are certainly advantages to working out in the gym, such as greater control of environmental variables, there are beneficial aspects of being outdoors that you’d struggle to replicate inside, and that can take your workouts to the next level. This article is written in line with this year’s focus for Mental Health Awareness Week: nature. This past year of lockdowns has brought to the forefront the importance of accessible natural spaces for supporting positive mental wellbeing. Switching up your workout routine with more time outdoors is a great way to tap into these benefits, not only for the mind but for the body too.

Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

  1. Burn more calories

    It turns out Mother Nature really does come to the rescue to help you burn more calories when exercising. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

    Firstly, using running as an example, you expend more energy running outside than you do running the same distance inside[1]. As well as wind resistance causing you to work a bit harder outdoors, changes in terrain and incline equates directly to more calories being expended. Research has also suggested that when exercising in colder temperatures, the body has a greater utilization of fat stores for energy[2]. This results in more fat being burned, whilst more glycogen (the quick-release energy store) can be retained, reducing the chance of early fatigue whilst exercising.

    Secondly, you’ll end up working out for longer on average when exercising outside[3]. Whether you’re heading to a park, woodland trail or just running on the pavement, getting out and about poses a number of environmental distractions that help to take the work out of ‘working out’. Additionally, when exercising indoors on a treadmill, cycling machine or cross trainer, it’s too easy to end your workout when you first feel like stopping. In comparison, when you’re physically out of the house or gym, there’s often some distance left to cover before making it back.

    Lastly, the environmental stimulation has been shown to detract from focusing on your body, making you less conscious of tiredness or muscle aches[4]. Immerse yourself in nature and observe your local wildlife and plant species. You’ll likely find yourself working out harder outdoors without even noticing!

  2. Increase motivation and enjoyment

    Exercising outdoors has shown to be more enjoyable and more energising than indoor exercise[5]. You’re much more likely to form a positive association with exercise if you feel better during and after doing it, making it easier to stick to a workout routine when before you might have dreaded it, or even actively look forward to your next workout.

  3. Reduce stress and boost your mood

    Getting the heart rate up and the body moving is a great way to de-stress, and outdoor workouts accomplish this best. If you have access to green space to exercise in, you’re in luck. We’re biologically hardwired to find comfort in trees, plants, water and other elements of nature, so being surrounded by these will help relieve stress. This is the main reason we enjoy plants and flowers in our homes, and even extends to the colour green having calming effects alone. Exercising in outdoor natural environments has also shown to lower levels of perceived exertion, improve mood and raise self-esteem[6].

  4. Bolster your immune system

    One study explored pre-exercise shivering, something that might occur naturally before outdoor exercise on a chilly day. Researchers found that when low-intensity shivering was induced, more of the neurotransmitter Norepinephrine was released, contributing to the fight-or-flight response that temporarily boosts the immune system functioning[7].

    On top of this, being in the warm indoors at a shared gym will increase your exposure to anyone who’s carrying a seasonal cold or virus, something you’re far less likely to catch exercising outdoors. Getting a sufficient dose of vitamins in your diet is also essential to strengthening your immune system and maintaining good health.

  5. Free outdoor gym

    We’re not going to pretend that every gym exercise has a simple outdoor equivalent, especially for specific muscle isolation exercises, but for general aerobic exercise there is plenty of opportunity for fulfilling workouts outdoors. Behavioural economists have observed that people who purchase annual memberships for gyms overestimate how much they’ll actually use the facilities by approximately 70% on average[8]. If you’re able to replicate your gym workouts outside, this is an easy way to save £30+ each month on top of the other benefits of outdoor exercise mentioned above.

Tips for Outdoor Exercise

  • First, focus on whichever exercise that you enjoy most. Whilst there are certain exercises that burn more calories than others, changes to your exercise schedule need to be repeated enough times to become habitual. It’s a lot easier to maintain your motivation for exercising when you’re doing an activity you enjoy, and once you’ve established your new routine, you can switch up the specific exercise to increase calorie expenditure or intensity.
  • Wear sports clothing that’s made from synthetic fibers like polyester or nylon, as this will wick away moisture instead of soaking it up like cotton. In wet and cold weather, cotton will zap your body heat, and there’s nothing worse than a cold, soggy work out!
  • Make sure that your gear is suitable for the surface you’ll be exercising on. If running in the woods or on tracks, invest in some trail running shoes that have greater traction and have extra cushioning to protect against rocks. If you’re cycling, make sure your tyre tread is appropriate for the corresponding on-road or off-road environments, get a mud guard for wetter weather, and ensure your tyres are sufficiently pumped up.
  • Don’t forget about hydration. Whilst it’s easier to bring a water bottle along to the gym and it to not get in the way of your exercise, it is important not to neglect your hydration when being active out and about. If you’re running for example, we recommend bringing a small water bottle that’s easy to hold in the hand, so it has minimal disruption to your workout. For any workouts longer than 90 minutes, bring energy gels or an isotonic sports drink to maintain energy levels.
Toby Watson

Written by: Toby Watson

Pharmica Medical Writer

Toby (BSc) is an experienced medical writer, producing educational articles on many areas of health including sexual health, fitness, nutrition and mental health.

He particularly enjoys debunking misconceptions around heath conditions and their treatments, researching each topic in detail and writing easily-accessible content.

Find out more about how we ensure the accuracy of our content with our content guidelines.

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