Exercising outdoors in this perfect Houston weather has additional health benefits



That crisp October air makes us all itchy to go outside and enjoy the drop in heat and humidity. In the past few months, many have chosen to achieve their daily stride rate indoors by running on a treadmill or using an ergometer in the gym to escape the persistent, hot summer weather. The improved climate provides the perfect opportunity to discuss how Mother Nature can add extra benefits to your outdoor workouts.

Leading health and medical organizations, including the World Health Organization, the US Surgeon General, and the American College of Sports Medicine, agree that physical activity is a pillar of good mental and physical health. To get these benefits, adults are advised to participate in 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity per week. This can be 60 minutes of brisk walking or 30 minutes of more intense exercise such as faster running or interval training five days a week.

It can be challenging to incorporate exercise into a busy day, but any exercise is better than none. You will experience the heart and muscle strengthening benefits of exercise whether you exercise your body indoors or outdoors. However, if you can take it outside, you can feel some additional benefits, especially in terms of mental health.

In many different types of research studies, exposure to nature has been repeatedly linked to improvements in mood, reductions in physiological and psychological stress, and even longer lifespan. Some researchers have also documented that the amount of green in neighborhoods can be associated with an increased level of happiness and less psychological distress.

We know that when you exercise, your body releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which promote the so-called “runner’s high” while also serving to lift your mood and relieve pain. Endorphins make us euphoric, resilient, and ready to take on any challenge, which can help you overcome your fatigue.

These effects are enhanced by additional happiness hormones and molecules, including serotonin, when exercising outdoors. Direct contact with the sun helps the body produce higher levels of serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer that promotes wellbeing. Sunlight also helps your body make more vitamin D, a micronutrient that is involved in almost every cellular process. Vitamin D deficiency is usually more common during the winter months, so an outdoor workout can help raise your levels.

One of the many body systems that needs adequate vitamin D is the immune system. A healthy amount of exercise improves immune function by helping to naturally trigger and strengthen the body’s innate defenses against infection and viral diseases. When exercising in a green space surrounded by trees, the protective effects of exercise can be enhanced by biogenic compounds emitted by many species of plants. Some scientists argue that inhaling these compounds can stimulate better immunity. Staying under trees and in nature can also help alleviate stress and anxiety, which in turn further improves optimal immune function. This is especially relevant given the stressors and vulnerabilities many of us have faced during the pandemic that have created more anxiety while trying to keep healthy and immunity high.

In Japan, lingering between the trees is known as Shinrin-Yoku, which means “forest bathing”. Forest bathing has been studied as a form of mental health and immune system therapy that go hand in hand. Don’t worry, you don’t have to find the closest forest to get these benefits. going to your local park or hiking trail will do the job. Research meta-analyzes have shown that exposure to green spaces can help improve physical health parameters, lower diastolic blood pressure, and lower stress hormone levels, which can then help reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular mortality to decrease. In some other countries and regions of the world, walking in forest areas is considered part of the medicine and healthcare professionals can write a “green prescription” to patients. There is a growing trend towards prescribing outdoor sports as part of the global health movement “Exercise is Medicine”.

Several research reports have analyzed studies comparing outdoor and indoor sports. The results consistently show that exercising in a natural, outdoor setting is linked to feeling revitalized and reducing tension, anger, sadness and stress while increasing energy and focus – all in just five minutes!

Repeated movement in nature can also lead to better emotional well-being through connected feelings. In her book, The Joy of Movement, researcher Kelly McGonigal teaches readers about green exercise and the calming bliss felt when exercising outdoors. She describes this positive energy as the result of feeling connected to something greater than ourselves.

When you exercise outside, the distractions of the scenery can make time fly by like the birds in the trees around you. In addition, new environmental challenges arise outdoors that will help you push your body more. For example, when you exercise indoors, the climate is controlled. Outside, the climate is variable (especially in Houston!), As is the landscape and terrain. This can help keep your body on its toes and get more out of your workout.

Many people fear adding more exercise to their routine, which is normal. Much of this hesitation comes from worrying about going to the gym and feeling ill-equipped to use the machines or special athletic skills. One of the best things about exercising is that there is no “best way” or “best place” to move your body, and exercising outside is a great way to feel more comfortable.

Many people also believe that the only way to exercise outside is by running, and this activity only counts as exercise if you are sweating profusely and then feel exhausted. Fortunately, this is not the case. All of these benefits can be experienced at low intensity in any type of activity. Exercise outdoors opens the door to a more creative variety of activities such as biking, swimming, hiking, and sports. If you have a hectic day at work, try answering a call or two while you’re walking outside – I’m sure you’ll feel more comfortable afterward and be ready to take on the task at hand. Exercise is vital to physical health and provides added value when exercised in the great outdoors.

Emma Willingham is a registered nutritionist practicing in an outpatient hospital clinic and in her private practice, Fuel with Emma. You can find her on social media at @fuelwithemma.


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