If you’re determined to get into shape and make exercise a part of your longevity plan, why not take it outside? Increasingly, the effect of nature on our frame of mind and overall health is being investigated. For conditions ranging from obesity to schizophrenia and heart disease, promising data suggests there are significant benefits (including promoting a longer life) to being in fresh air and the wide open.
Benefits of being outdoors: A 2011 review of 38 different research projects, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, found that people suffering from many different physical and mental problems improved with some form of “nature-assisted therapy”, probably because natural environments tend to promote relaxation. For example, patients with congestive heart failure showed significantly improved heart rate and mood scores after gardening programs. Weight loss was greater among obese subjects undergoing an outdoor exercise program, and subjects suffering a variety of diseases – including breast cancer and dementia – reported improved mental focus after their nature program. A reduction in anxiety, anger and depression were common findings.
Move it outside or inside? Researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom set out to answer the specific question of whether exercising in an outdoor, natural environment would be better for a person’s health and wellbeing than doing the same activity indoors. Their review, published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2011, analyzed 11 different trials comparing the effects of exercising outdoors and indoors. A total of 833 adults were involved.
In all of the studies, participants were surveyed about their mood and energy level after a single episode of walking or running indoors, and then again after doing the same activity outdoors on a separate occasion.
What they found: Overall, exercising outdoors was associated with feeling more revitalized, more energetic, and less tense, angry or depressed, than after their indoor activity. In one of the trials, subjects reported that they felt less fatigued after exercising outside. In addition, most of the participants said they felt more satisfied, and had greater enjoyment outdoors. Perhaps most significantly, the majority of subjects also said they were more likely to stick with the outdoor activity in the future.
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Walking and running outside may also offer better fitness benefits than using a treadmill, since the varied terrain offers muscles and joints greater challenge for balance and endurance.
Still to investigate: Though none of the studies tracked long-term adherence to an outdoor exercise program, other research has shown that even a small amount of exercise done regularly improves longevity. Perhaps future investigation will prove whether being outside helps people continue to be active.
Since there are so many types of green spaces, ranging from wilderness areas and wildlife reserves, to urban parks, further studies will determine which environments promote the greatest activity. The University of Exeter review cites a 2005 survey of European cities that found simply having access to green spaces made a difference, with citizens in areas of greatest greenery being three times more likely to be active, and 40% less likely to be obese. Other research cites green spaces improves a sense of connectivity and companionship, which in turn promotes longevity.
This area of research is complicated by the fact that many studies are looking at different outcomes, which makes a meta-analysis –- that is, a comparison aimed at drawing definite conclusions about the direct effect of nature -- more difficult. Still, the growing field of horticulture therapy aims to improve health and wellbeing through increased contact with natural environments.
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What it means for you: Since regular exercise – even just 15 minutes a day – has been shown to help you live longer, why not double up on the rewards, by being active outdoors?
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Elizabeth Richardson, Jamie Pearce, Richard Mitchell, Peter Day, and Simon Kinghamet. “The Association Between Green Space and Cause-specific Mortality in Urban New Zealand: a Ecological Analysis of Green Space Utility.” BMC Public Health. 2010; 10: 240.
J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge. 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, 2011, 45 (5), pp 1761–1772.
Matilda Annerstedt and Peter Wahrborg. “Nature-Assisted Therapy: Systematic Review of Controlled and Observational Studies.” Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2011; 39: 371–388