Why You May Get More Out Of An Outdoor Workout Than Staying Inside

Let's be real, getting any kind of exercise is going to benefit your health and longevity in the long run, However, during the height of lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic, gyms around the world were forced to shutter, and we all had a choice: either workout in our living rooms or get outside. The outside options, especially during the summer months, meant running, cycling, rollerskating, skateboarding, and getting our hot girl walks (aka walking) on. An ocean of ink has been spilled extolling the benefits of walking at least 10,000 steps a day (via GQ), and those steps are usually more enjoyable on a waterfront or forest trail than on your basement treadmill.

Now, research is emerging that suggests outdoor workouts aren't just more enjoyable, they're better for you, and make for a more vigorous workout. Some of the benefits an in-nature workout can offer over an indoor workout include getting more fresh air and sunlight, improving mental well-being, increasing the connection you feel with nature, and increasing motivation to continue to work out. Of course, there are going to be times when going outdoors just isn't possible, so let's look at all the reasons why you might want to grab your hiking boots, and also, why you should stay indoors on occasion.

Outdoor workouts amplify benefits over indoor workouts

General practitioner Dr. Zoe Williams is a big proponent of heading outdoors to help improve overall health. She told Stylist, "We all know that simply walking is great for both physical and mental health, but a rapidly growing body of evidence tells us that walking 'in nature' can actually amplify the health benefits." And she's right. A study published in "Frontiers of Psychology" found those who walked both indoors and outdoors reported less stress and increased enjoyment when outside. A PLoS ONE study made participants hike the Alps and then recreated the hike indoors on treadmills, but the respondents found the Alpine hike easier and more enjoyable, despite their heart rates being higher when on the hike compared to when on the treadmill.

Being outdoors seems to affect our brains in positive ways. We enjoy the activity more, even if it's more strenuous. Our emotional well-being is boosted and we feel increased happiness and less anxiety. Our brains are able to quiet down and if we're experiencing spiraling thoughts, they tend to ease. "That's why exercising is good for the brain but exercising outside is potentially better," Katherine Boere, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria, told The Washington Post

But what if you live in the concrete jungle? Are all outdoors created equal? If you live in an urban center, you might want to seek the green out.

City exercising has fewer benefits than working out in a green space

While getting outdoors anywhere is preferable to staying in, if you live in a massive metropolis, you might have to seek out the forest trails, green parks, and waterfronts for the greatest benefits. As The Washington Post reported, urban city centers don't offer the same mental benefits that green environments offer when it comes to working out. The outlet cited a research overview where researchers found that just fifteen minutes of what they called "green exercise" had a greater ability to boost our mental health and calm our nerves than urban exercise. Claire Wicks, a senior research assistant at the University of Essex in England, who led the review told the outlet that "as little as five minutes of green exercise can be beneficial." 

More research and different experts are in agreement here. Dr. Zoe Williams told Stylist, "One study, conducted in young women, found that walking in a forest, rather than an urban environment, was associated with significantly higher parasympathetic nervous activity and dampened down sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, nervous activity." In layman's terms, that means urban exercise makes people feel less relaxed and comfortable than green exercise. Tension, hostility, and anxiety were noticed more when in urban environments.

We can hear a chorus of you saying, "But I can't always get outdoors to work out!" And you know what? That's fair! There are many reasons why you may not be able to green up your squats and lunges.

Sometimes Mother Nature is working against us

While outdoor exercise has numerous benefits, there may be times when indoor exercise is preferable. If you live in places like Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Russia, you already know the first reason: sometimes the great outdoors is just too inhospitable! When the temperatures drop below zero, there's a meter of snow on the ground, the sky is hailing, and the winds are biting at your face, that basement treadmill just looks much more appealing doesn't it? Of course, you should never force yourself outdoors when Mother Nature is just making it too unsafe (gale-force winds, blizzards, hurricanes, or even extreme heat and smog), so use your judgment wisely.

Others might find outdoor exercise inaccessible simply because they don't live near green spaces. As we mentioned vis-a-vis urban exercise, there are many whose neighborhood only consists of bodegas, subway entrances, skyscrapers, and hot dog stands. Not a blade of grass in sight! Many others still might lack the confidence needed to go out into the world in their workout gear and have people see them huff and puff with wobbly bits on display. Some of us just need privacy to fully commit to our workout. All of those reasons are valid, and ultimately, the choice between outdoor and indoor exercise depends on personal preferences, accessibility, and individual circumstances. Always do what's best for you.

Transfer those gym moves to the outdoors

Okay, so you're sold on ditching your gym membership and getting outside, but how do you translate some of those effective gym moves to the green space? There are no free weights or Pilates machines in Mother Nature, after all. In reality, it's not as daunting as you think. 

We all know about running and hiking, but don't forget about jumping rope, kayaking, bike riding, or rollerblading. Are you a fan of the rowing machine at the gym? Try actually rowing a boat! Do you love to flip tires? Grab your car's spare out of the trunk and flip it! Love your chin-up bar? Head to the monkey bars in the park! Of course, you may not want to lift boulders instead of your free weights. But fitness influencer Pamela Reif suggests in her popular workout videos on YouTube that filling your water bottles with rice makes for a great homemade weight. If you want an even heavier weight, Reif suggests filling a bag with rice, oats, or anything dense to really give those leg, back, and booty workouts an extra push. 

Exercises like push-ups, burpees, and planks also translate well to the outdoors. And if you want to stretch, grab your yoga mat and bring it to your nearest beach to do yoga and Pilates, all while enjoying the relaxing sounds of the surf. Reif's beachside stretches demonstrate that workouts outdoors really are relaxing. To the beach!