5 Surprising Benefits of Exercising Outdoors

Exercise is beneficial regardless of setting but there are extra advantages outdoor workouts can offer

woman in athletic wear about to drink water

Summer’s here with warmer temperatures and longer days beckoning you to “go outside.” Being out and about has plenty of benefits for mind and body, says physical therapist Beth Rohrer, PT, DPT and senior medical director for Tivity Health in Ashburn, Virginia. She joined with Kelly Smith, PT, DPT and Jennifer Youngen, PT, MSPT, both of Centreville Physical Therapy in Centreville, Virginia, with eight great reasons why outdoor exercise may be just your ticket to improved fitness and better health.

1. You’ll do more with less: “More and more research is showing the benefits of ‘green exercise,’” says Rohrer. A 2011 study from the University of Essex, U.K. in the journal Extreme Physiology & Medicine reports that outdoor exercise may increase physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion. “You may not think you’re exercising as hard outdoors as when you are indoors, but often you are,” she says.

2. You’ll nurture your brain: Outdoor workouts are true multitaskers. They can also reduce stress, restore mental fatigue, improve mood and self-esteem as well as how you view your health, the study says. A later study in Perspectives in Public Health confirms that “combining exercise, nature and social components” does enhance both mood and self-esteem.

“The social aspects of being outside are also valuable,” says Youngen. “Ask your spouse or partner to walk and talk with you, and say ‘hi’ to your neighbors. It’s less intimidating than being at the gym, where people may sometimes self-consciously feel they’re ‘being watched.’ It’s less competitive outside so you can relax more.”

A 2011 review in Environmental Science & Technology agrees, finding that outdoor exercise leads to greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. That’s a win-win.

3) You’ll reconnect: The Essex study suggests that “we are all born with and emotional affiliation with other living organisms,” meaning we’re nature lovers and need to be in nature.

“I like to encourage patients recovering from surgery or injuries to ‘get outside,’” says Smith, “especially when weather is nice. It’s so much easier and more fun to go for your 15-minute walk in the neighborhood than to go to the gym and get on a treadmill.”

4) You’ll toughen up:

a) Immunity: “Being outside exposes you to more types of bacteria, flora and fauna,” says Youngen, “to help you maintain a healthier immune response.”

b) Balance: “When you’re on uneven terrain, joints and muscles must respond accordingly, and you have to rely on your good balance,” says Smith. “You also work your smaller stabilizing muscles that support you and keep you upright. That’s more challenging than being on a piece of stationary equipment inside.”

“Being outside mirrors normal life,” Rohrer says. “You can’t run downhill on a treadmill.”

c) Coping: The weather and other factors aren’t always perfect when you’re outside, Youngen says, so you must tolerate temperatures, maybe even rain or snow. That takes some discipline.

“Of course, you want to have the right outdoor gear, especially for safety’s sake, but you get a sense of accomplishment that Mother Nature didn’t beat you,” Smith says. “That’s also great for self-esteem.”

5. You’ll mix it up: You already know that walking is the ideal way to start an exercise program. Just make sure you start with comfortable shoes designed for the task.

Make your walk into mini-interval training and mix it up, Rohrer says. Walk fast for a minute, then leisurely for a minute, then walk sideways or find a hill or some stairs. Do some tricep push-ups on a park bench, or step up and down on it.

6. You’ll make this part of your life: Try not to create obstacles to your outdoor activity, but embrace and incorporate exercise seamlessly into your lifestyle. Take your dog along for extra motivation and fun. When you take the kids to the park, plan to walk, run or play with them instead of just watching. Keep a packed exercise bag in your car, for impromptu stops for workouts when time permits.

7. You’ll vary your routine: Almost any exercise burns calories, but different types of physical activity have additional unique health benefits.

a) Hiking: If you decide to hike the hills, don’t go alone. Check with your local park service first for a list of cautions that can include snakes, wildlife or poison ivy. Take plenty of water and tell someone else where and when you’re going and returning.

b) Cycling: You don’t have to just ride on the hard road. Try mountain biking to use different muscles going up hills and peddling through water. So many areas now have ideal flat rail trails for less exertion and fabulous scenery. Cycling is great for cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and flexibility, joint mobility, reducing stress, improving posture and coordination, and strengthening bones.

c) Swimming: Doing the crawl or backstroke raises your heart rate but lessens stress on the body thanks to gentle buoyancy in water. It’s also ideal for cardiovascular fitness, endurance and muscle strength, and toning muscles.

“There’s a ‘technique’ to swimming,” says Youngen, “and using the correct technique can prevent shoulder injuries. Start the right way and take a class at your local Y or recreation center to gain confidence and know you’re swimming safely and correctly.”

To mix things up, try open-water swimming in a lake or in the ocean, if available. “It really adds that outdoor component. Just be sure you’re supervised or life-guarded,” Smith says.

d) Volleyball and basketball: Your local park or beach probably have courts for both. “You don’t have to have a whole team to play, but can get a good workout, as intense as you want, just going one-on-one or shooting hoops,” Smith says.

8. You’ll make goal: You train better if you’re priming for an event, says Youngen. Maybe you’ve been thinking of doing a half-marathon or Tough Mudder mud run and obstacle race. “You’ll be more inspired if you’re just slightly intimidated by the challenge—which should always be a safe one,” she says.

Whether you prefer to exercise indoors or outdoors, it's important to like what you're doing to keep doing it, our experts say. That keeps you coming back for more long-term benefits.