The effects of exercising do not only depend on what you do. Find out the benefits you get by doing your workouts outdoors.
These benefits range from simply preferring the outdoor options to interesting influences of the sunlight, nature, and outside air on important hormone levels.
One thing to note is that working out indoors can also of course still offer valuable benefits. For example, if you only have the option to lift weights inside, you likely want to implement these types of workouts too.
1. Can be good for your mental health
However, something that may surprise you is that working out outside seems to offer even more positive effects in this area (2).
The first reason for this is that sunlight benefits mental health. Even if it is cloudy outside, you typically get a lot more sunlight outdoors compared to indoors.
One study divided participants into a sunlight exposure group and a control group. The group that got 30+ minutes of sunlight per day over 4 weeks scored better on mental health tests (3).
The second way outdoor exercise could benefit mental health applies to people who have the option to work out in nature.
A study divided 38 participants into three groups. One group did a 50-min forest path, the second group a 50-min walk along a busy road, and the third group a period of regular daily activities.
Changes in positive and negative affect, anxiety, perceived stress, and working memory were measured.
As expected, the walking groups had better improvements that the group that did no extra exercise. However, interestingly enough, the forest path walkers experienced more improvements than the busy road walkers (4).
2. Tends to be more exciting
A big reason many people find it challenging to stick to a workout routine is that they don’t enjoy the exercise that much.
One thing that can help with this is exercising outside.
Most people will agree that seeing different sceneries and moving around on different surfaces is more exciting than spending an hour on the treadmill or elliptical in the gym.
This is not just a luxury that is nice to have. By enjoying your workouts more it can also become easier to stay consistent with your routine. In turn, this offers a variety of other positive effects.
3. Benefits your sleep
Many people know that sleep quality and duration are important for things like mood, general health, cognitive function, and more specific health goals like building muscle and losing weight.
However, it is not always clear how to actually improve these things.
That being said, working out outdoors positively influences these areas of your health even more.
These are internal clocks that regulate the release of a variety of hormones. Including hormones that play a big role in sleep quality and duration.
4. Can offer the good kind of extra challenge
Treadmills, resistance training gym machines, elliptical machines, exercise bikes, etc. all still offer valuable benefits but it is also reasonable to call them somewhat “sterile”.
More specifically, they simulate real-life exercises and sports to some extent but still lack some of the more challenging dimensions of doing the original activities.
For example, riding an exercise bike will obviously require less balance than riding an actual bike outdoors. This second option will also in turn tend to keep your balance fitness component sharper.
Additionally, walking on uneven surfaces will work your stabilizing muscles around your ankles, knees, hips, and core to a larger extent. Again, this keeps these muscles stronger and healthier if you don’t overdo it.
5. No gym membership is required
While you may still want to invest in outdoor exercise equipment to get more out of your workouts, exercising outside does not require any gym subscriptions.
Investing in your health is often great but if you just walk or jog outside instead of on a treadmill in the gym, this can benefit your wallet.
6. You may simply prefer it
All the differences in hormone levels and muscle engagement between indoor and outdoor exercise are interesting to know and can play important roles.
At the same time, you could also just prefer working out outside and in nature. Similar to keeping things exciting, enjoying your movement sessions more could improve consistency with your routine.
7. Your exercise performance could improve
While all the internal mechanisms involved are not entirely clear yet, there are some interesting studies that imply you will likely perform better in outdoor exercises due to lower perceived exertion (9).
For example, in one study with 11 healthy males they asked the participants to run on a track outside and run on a treadmill inside at certain perceived exertion levels (light, somewhat hard, hard).
When running outside, they moved at a higher speed for the same subjective exertion levels (10). This implies that outdoor exercise could feel easier.
Another study with 35 active young women asked the participants to walk at a self-selected speed. Again, the outside conditions lead to an increased speed but a lower perceived exertion at the same time (11).
Working out more intensely is not always better but as long as your body can deal with them, these intenser movements should be good for your health.
8. Could save you time
At-home workouts could be an option too but many forms of indoor exercise require you to move somewhere.
Even if it only takes 10 minutes to get there, that is an extra 20 minutes you have to spend on each workout. Considering you will do many of these, the extra time on the road really adds up.
There are some activities like indoor climbing that you basically have to do in a certain indoor location.
However, if you walk, run, or cycle outside instead of going to the gym to use the machines that simulate these movements, you don’t have to spend any extra time on transport.
For people who struggle with finding enough time throughout the day to move more, these extra minutes can be a really valuable addition to all the other helpful benefits on this list.
9. Can help you avoid vitamin D insufficiencies
While there is also a way of overdoing it which could involve disadvantages, many people don’t get enough sunlight because of how much time they spend inside (12).
In turn, vitamin D insufficiencies are relatively common because your body uses sunlight to create this hormone.
By getting more sunlight you can reduce to what extent you are lacking vitamin D. This should reduce your risk of weak bones, bad mood, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, etc. (13).
10. Could lower blood pressure and improve heart rate variability
Like many measures of health, there is an optimal range for blood pressure and heart rate variability with both upper and lower limits.
That being said, modern life makes it so many people would benefit from things that lower their blood pressure and increase heart rate variability with methods that don’t come with side effects (14, 15).
If you have the option to train in nature, one of these healthy methods could be working out outside.
Two studies where participants watch and exercise while watching nature images vs no or “built” scenes imply that simply looking at nature could lower blood pressure and improve heart rate variability (16, 17).
More research about the effects of outdoor workouts on these areas is definitely welcome. However, it would not be a surprise if these findings were confirmed by other studies.
11. Adds some variety to your workouts
There are many things that influence how fun or boring exercise sessions are. That being said, many people will agree that adding some variety to their workouts makes these more enjoyable.
As mentioned before, certain indoor workouts are somewhat more one-sided due to the predictability of the surfaces you do the activities on.
On the flip side, walking, running, or doing other workouts outside can mean very different things depending on where you do them.
Walking to the store in a city area is completely different from trudging through the hills in the countryside.
This extra variety can help keep things interesting and make you look forward to your next adventure which also coincidentally improves your health and mood.