The importance of exercise is widely accepted, but making the outdoors your gym may have additional benefits you simply cannot get with an indoor workout. Studies have suggested that running or cycling outside is more strenuous than working out on a treadmill or an exercise bicycle. Those who exercise outdoors also seem to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and are able to work out longer — an additional 30 minutes per week. As a bonus, those who exercise outdoors may experience less depression and a heightened sense of well-being, not to mention more enthusiasm for exercise itself, the very thing needed for long-term success.
Considerations for exercising outdoors
You will find that outdoor exercise challenges your muscular and cardiovascular systems more, which are both reasons to train outdoors more often. However, outdoor workouts may require more planning:
If you plan to run outdoors, you should walk your course first. You should observe whether the road has smooth shoulders that will allow you to stay out of traffic, whether the road has potholes or other conditions making it unsafe, or whether all the dogs are tied up. If you feel unsafe on an intended route, you should probably consider running somewhere else, perhaps in the park or on cross-country trails.
If you decide to run off-road during the summer or autumn, where will you go? If you run on trails, you may encounter animals, or be more susceptible to tick bites. Make sure to use bug spray and check for ticks when you get home. If you walk in the woods, wear bright orange to alert hunters and stay safe.
If you like hiking the high peaks, carry layers of dry clothing in your backpack. Weather conditions can change rapidly with increasing altitude. It can be 80°F and sunny at the base of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in July, and 35°F and snowing at the peak (6,288 feet above sea level) with 50 mph winds. Remember to carry dry layers for the descent, too.
If you cycle, remember to wear a properly sized, safety-approved helmet. Carry a spare inner tube and know how to change a tire. Routinely check tire pressure and the mechanical functioning of your bicycle. Does the stem expander bolt need tightening? If so, do that before setting out, or you will crash, risking serious injury.
If you have allergies or pollen triggers asthma, be prepared. Carry a rescue inhaler, if necessary, or take antihistamines before starting out, to prevent allergy symptoms.
If you have to run before daybreak or after dusk, make sure you’re moving against traffic and wearing bright, reflective clothing.
Can you exercise outdoors in the winter?
Winter is a great time to exercise outdoors, but it presents additional risks:
Hypothermia is a real danger for those taking long runs or doing back-country skiing or snowshoeing, especially when temperatures drop below 10°F. You can limit the length of workouts when the temperature dips.
Prepare for the weather. Be aware of dangerously low temperatures or approaching storms. Dress appropriately: warm layers that wick perspiration should be the standard. Always wear gloves or mittens and an insulated knit hat.
If you're planning a winter walk and the conditions outdoors are icy, wear slip-on ice cleats over your boots to avoid falling. Or, make sure to walk slowly and stay on a paved path that has been adequately shoveled and sanded.
Look after the condition and preparation of your equipment before you go outside. Are the bindings on your skis or snowshoes worn or needing replacement? Are those blades on your ice skates secure?
Exercising outdoors has too many advantages to pass it up altogether, but there is an added requirement for heightened awareness so always make sure prepare before you start your outdoor workout. Do at least some of your exercise outdoors throughout the year, and you will reap several benefits, including more vitamin D3 production, greater fitness, and an improved sense of wellbeing. Can you come out to play?
PubMed: A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running
PubMed: The ecological validity of laboratory cycling: Does body size explain the difference between laboratory- and field-based cycling performance?
PubMed: Vis Medicatrix naturae: does nature "minister to the mind"?
The New York Times: The Benefits of Exercising Outdoors
PubMed: Outdoor physical activity and self rated health in older adults living in two regions of the U.S.