Outdoor vs. Indoor Exercise

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s been officially spring for almost a month — but in many areas, warmer weather is just starting to arrive. This means, of course, that many people are making plans to spend more time outdoors, including doing outdoor exercise. Should you join the crowds that are hitting the roads, trails, and parks?

An article published late last month in Time magazine outlines some of the reasons why you should consider moving your exercise routine outdoors. Among them are the results of several studies on exercise. One of them, published in 2012 in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, found that in older adults, exercising outdoors was associated with significantly more minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity — about 5 more minutes each day, or 35 more minutes each week. Participants who logged more physical activity were likely to report being in better health, regardless of where they tended to exercise — but those who exercised outside were, overall, in better health because they exercised more.

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So why do people tend to exercise longer when they do it outside? One reason may be that it’s more enjoyable. In a 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers found that based on 11 different trials involving 833 mostly young adults, exercising outside was associated with “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement,” along with reduced tension, anger, and depression — and greater energy — compared with exercising indoors. People who exercised outdoors were also more likely to express their intent to do that activity again on a different day. Exercising in a natural environment led to a significant increase in levels of self-reported well-being immediately following the exercise, while exercising indoors wasn’t associated with any increase in well-being.

Another study, published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that taking a 90-minute walk through nature led to a decrease in both self-reported rumination and activity in an area of the brain associated with worrying, as shown on an MRI. Taking a 90-minute walk in an urban area had no effect on either one of these measures, which suggests that some of the mental-health benefits of outdoor exercise may be found only, or mostly, in more natural outdoor environments — and possibly not just by exercising outside on asphalt or concrete.

Another reason to exercise outside, of course, is that you’re likely to save money on a gym membership or exercise equipment. Clothing and shoes are probably the only expenses you’ll incur — and chances are, you’d have to pay for these items if you exercised indoors, as well. But even with all these benefits of outdoor activity, there may be compelling reasons to exercise indoors — from safety and weather considerations, to greater control over the airflow and temperature in your exercise environment, to an easier ability to watch TV or listen to music while you work out.

What’s your opinion on indoor vs. outdoor exercise — do you think you feel better, or exercise longer, when you do it outside? Is it logistically easier for you to plan an exercise activity for inside or outside your house? Do you have exercise-friendly outdoor areas, like parks or trails, nearby where you live? Do you think your outdoor exercise habits would be different if you had different options nearby? Leave a comment below!