How Exercising Outdoors Can Boost Your Workout
Exercise equipment fills Tami Hart's garage, gathering dust. Tami also ignores the 24-hour fitness room she could use for free at her workplace.
It's not that the Payette, Idaho, woman has given up on physical activity. "There's just something about walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike that is totally unappealing and uninspiring," she says. Instead, you'll find her exercising outside, year-round, even in snow and icy wind.
"I need to feel some connection with the outdoors and experience nature as I'm exercising," says Hart.
There's good scientific reason why Hart and many others feel such a difference between outdoor and indoor exercising. It starts with how we pay attention to the world around us and function within it, explains Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, a researcher in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
During most of our waking hours, we use our directed-attention ability, which helps us stay on task, take an exam or drive in heavy traffic. Directed attention—while useful for success in many life functions—demands concentrated effort. It leaves us feeling mentally fatigued and even stressed, Dr. Faber Taylor says.
By contrast, being in natural settings triggers involuntary attention. We use this when watching a flickering campfire or the moving water of a stream. Involuntary attention is easier on the mind, helping to rebuild and renew directed-attention strength.
"When people exercise outdoors in nature, they are not only exercising their body, but likely restoring attention and receiving physiological stress-reduction benefits. It's a whole-body effect versus just the physical," says Dr. Faber Taylor. Among her research findings: that walking in a park setting for 20 minutes improved the attention performance of children with attention deficits, compared to walking in more built settings. Similarly, a University of Michigan study released in 2008 showed that walking in natural environments or even simply looking at pictures of nature scenes restored the cognitive functioning of a group of college students.
Combining nature and physical activity—a phenomenon called "green exercise" by researchers at the University of Essex in England—produces a positive effect on physical and emotional health. Green exercise has been shown to significantly improve self-esteem and mood, reduce blood pressure and burn calories.
Taking it outside
We all know women who love going to the gym. They enjoy the fitness equipment, trainers and classes within those walls. Others work out at home, preferring the privacy and convenience they find there.