Lucky is not the word we’d use to describe the events of the past few months, but we’re going to say that the amazing weather we experienced in the depths of lockdown was one small stroke of luck among the unfortunate events of 2020.
Being able to exercise outdoors, in decent temperatures and dry weather, was pretty glorious. It made training without the gym pretty easy and enjoyable. But now that the rain has returned and the gyms have re-opened, you might be putting an end to your HIIT in the park or weekly 5Ks. Perhaps we shouldn’t be, though.
The benefits of outside exercise on mental health
Firstly, we know that being outdoors is of huge importance when it comes to our mental health. Accordinf to the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Japan, simply being outside can reduce our stress hormone cortisol by as much as 15%, and the positive effects of being around nature increase when we combine that with the endorphine-boosting act of movement.
“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,” explains Dr Zoe Williams, GP and member of the Strong Women Collective. “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.”
Not only that, but the forest walkers reported higher scores for feeling relaxed and comfortable, whereas scores for negative feelings, such as tension, anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue were significantly lower.
And it goes further than walking: research published in Environment, Science and Technology journal suggests that exercising in natural environments is associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, greater enjoyment and satisfaction with the activity and a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date. Movement that you’ll love and stick with? Sounds like a win to us.
The benefits of outside exercise on physical health
There is even some evidence to suggest that exercise may feel easier when performed outdoors, meaning that you can push yourself further and get more physical benefits.
According to one study from the University of Essex, being outside can act as a “distractive stimulus”: “It is likely that promoting attention to an external pleasant and green environment reduces awareness of physiologic sensations and negative emotions,” it reads. The study then suggests that ‘green exercise’ reduces our perceived effort and means we can train harder without feeling as fatigued, helping to increase the amount of physical activity undertaken.
Kerry Dixon, an ex-professional sprinter and co-founder of the Athlete Method, has trained outside her whole life. “I always found it easier to run in the fresh air and it does help me to recover faster,” she tells Stylist. In fact, research does show that post-exercise blood pressure returns to normal more quickly after exercising in front of rural scenes compared to urban settings, meaning more efficient recovery.
Of course, whether or not your training is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ will depend totally on your goals. “Everything is dependent on what your purpose is,” says Kerry, who is now running outdoor bootcamp sessions in Finsbury Park. “In our method of training we predominantly use bodyweight, and that is a very effective workout for general strength and fitness. But if your goal is to build your muscle mass, you will probably need to get into the gym.”
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Barriers to outdoor exercise
Writing this as the rain pours from my window, I’m wondering if I could really train outside year round. In Kerry’s days as a competitive runner, she trained rain, shine or snow. “I think it does just kind of build that grit and resilience and I think that it can also be quite a fun part of the session. It’s battling the unknown element which can be exciting. And no matter what happens, after the session you get to have a warm bath and a delicious dinner,” she encourages.
There’s more than just the weather to think about though. While gyms don’t have to be expensive, they do cost money. The park doesn’t. However, training around other people isn’t a comfortable experience for everyone. To feel more confident when exercising in view of the wider world, Kerry says it’s simply about making decisions that empower you. For example, joining an outdoor class or training with a friend rather than alone so that you have support and encouragement. “Wear what you feel good in – that doesn’t have to be a sports bra and shorts,” Kerry adds. “And try to remember that those watching on the sidelines actually wish that they were in your position. Their opinion is actually irrelevant. You’re the one taking positive actions for your health,” she says.
However, it’s important to remember that the luxury of having access to a garden or park to train safely in isn’t an experience shared by everyone. In the University of Essex’s research, they showed that “higher socioeconomic status enhances park safety, maintenance, attractiveness and opportunity for socialisation and is an important determinant of access to more remote nature.”
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As with everything in fitness, there is no ‘one size fits all’, but we’d say it’s important to not rule out outdoor exercise now that it’s not your only option. Whether it’s joining an outdoor class or simply getting out for a daily walk in nature, right now it is particularly crucial to consider, given that not all of us feel ready to go back to the gym in the current climate.
If there’s research to suggest that we can get fitter and feel better exercising outside, we say it’s worth a shot.
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