The best gym in the world doesn’t have any weight machines or spin bikes. There are no logo-emblazoned water bottles for sale or televisions blaring the news—and it's 100-percent free.
Welcome to the great outdoors. While many of us think about how we work out— high-intensity intervals versus yoga, kettle bells versus spin class—research shows that exercising in nature can improve performance, strengthen muscles, reduce stress, boost the immune system, and the list goes on and on. “There are an incredible amount of benefits to exercising outside,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. “For the same mileage, research shows you burn more calories outdoors. Exercising outdoors also improves our moods and increases our sense of vitality. It calms our nervous system and gives us needed Vitamin D. The benefits are vast, myriad, and wonderful.”
“There are an incredible amount of benefits to exercising outside.”
Science backs up these claims. Researchers at the University of Innsbruck in Australia recently compared a three-hour hike to a comparable three-hour workout on a treadmill. On the hike, heart rates were higher, yet the exercise was rated as more pleasant than the indoor sessions. Meanwhile, a bevy of trials show improvement in mental wellbeing when comparing exercising outdoors with staying inside, including greater feelings of revitalization, decrease in confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy. Yet another study shows that a 90- minute walk lowers the neural activity in the area of the brain linked to mental illness.
There are so many new ways to exercise outdoors, it’s an embarrassment of choice. Slack-lining—similar to tight-roping but anchored at only a foot or two off the ground—can be done on the beach, in the woods, or at the park. Stand-up paddleboard yoga gives you the chance to do those sun salutations under the actual sun, with the heightened challenge of a quick dunk if you don’t keep that core engaged. Furthermore, trail running has hidden benefits for even the most serious runner. A natural trail is softer than asphalt or concrete—which means fewer injuries—and the uneven terrain strengthens the muscles that stabilize the lower leg.
Getting outdoors also helps you get into “flow,” or a state of consciousness in which you get so absorbed in what you’re doing that everything else disappears. “Nature’s packed with flow triggers like novelty, complexity, and unpredictability,” says Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of the Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. “When the brain encounters these triggers, it releases large quantities of dopamine. You get greater strength, pain relief, and make your exercise more addictive.” In a good way, of course. Not only that, flow supports “out of the box” thinking, says Kotler. Which means an outside workout can give you greater creativity at work or help you gain fresh insight into a personal problem you’ve been mulling over.
One of the best things about working out outdoors is you don’t have to go on an hours-long trek to reap the benefits—even fifteen minutes can lower our blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, says Williams. She recommends being mindful when you’re outside. In other words, take off the ear buds and get offline. Twitter can be fun, but studies show that hearing actual birdsong makes us more alert, while noticing things like fractal patterns in leaves, trees, and waves help create more alpha waves, which are associated with a state of calm and alertness. Williams practices what she preaches: “I rarely go to the gym,” she says. Instead, the outdoors is her gym; she does pushups, lunges and squats in a park or on a pier. “Just the other day I walked down to the Potomac River. I laid down and I was greeted by this wonderful surprise—this wizened old great blue heron,” she says. “I never would have seen him if I hadn’t been lying on the ground. It was the most delightful surprise. You just don’t get that at the gym.”
But who knew exercising outside could make you a better person? Taking in a vista or tree line can help us experience awe. This translates into a heightened sense of being connected to something larger than oneself, which can then inspire us to be kinder to others in general. This might be the best news for those of us who are addicted to our screens, stressed to the limit, yet eager to be healthier and more benevolent in an increasingly nerve-wracking world. So try taking in some trees—you might just be healthier and be nicer in the morning.
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