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, a 47-year-old sales manager and mother of three, whose fitness routine includes Nordic walking and mountain biking.
Holly Frew feels the same way. She spends her workdays inside, sitting at a desk. At the end of a long day, she ties on her sneakers and heads outdoors near her Atlanta, Georgia, home to run—just for the fun of it.
“When I’m running outside, I feel such freedom and release,” says Frew, who is 29. “I’m in tune with nature … I get in this zone, feeling like I can run forever.”
By contrast, when she runs indoors, “I feel like a hamster on a wheel. All I can do is wonder when it will be over!”
“The monotony and confinement (of indoor exercise) leaves me mentally unmotivated,” Frew adds. “I quickly become physically exhausted.”
There’s good scientific reason why Hart and Frew 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.
Those benefits contribute to why women who walk, run, dance, do yoga, bike, weight train or do other sports outdoors are so committed to the open air.
“I will walk in rain, shine, snow, deerflies biting or anything else,” says three-mile-a-day walker Sally Berry, 48, a travel consultant from Canandaigua, New York. “I get to notice things no one else does—the first birds back in the spring, a heron in a creek or the first tree to start changing color in the fall.”
Although some nature exercisers do go inside when the weather becomes too challenging, most return outdoors as soon as they can.
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.
Yet green exercise has appealing advantages: it’s often cheaper and easier than a gym or fitness club, usually provides a better visual and sensory experience than being inside and may be more easily adapted to your changing interests and needs. What’s more, exercising in a natural environment—rather than indoors on a treadmill—produces higher levels of positive emotions, with less tension and stress, and encourages you to exercise longer.
“Whether I’m surrounded by nature in the woods or running through the city, just being outside gives me a huge boost of energy,” says Esther Steinfeld, a 25-year-old from Houston. Being in a gym “makes it so much easier to stop,” she adds.
The psychological effect of being in the open air is as important to Steinfeld as the physical benefits. “Running outside doesn’t necessarily solve my problems, it just helps me put them in perspective. It’s like my mind is a tangled ball of yarn, and after I’m done, it’s one long strand.”
Outdoor classes are now springing up around the United States, bridging the gap between gyms and green exercise. Fitness instructor Paula Dunwoody, who taught step aerobics and other traditional indoor classes for 12 years, now runs her own fresh-air exercise sessions in Olney, Maryland. Participants (nearly all are women) in Out-n-About Outdoor Fitness classes use body weight, resistance tubes and exercise balls to work out in public parks, playgrounds, on trails and even on Dunwoody’s own property. “I knew how being outside affected me mentally and was excited to take my work outside,” she says.
At the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, groups of walkers take part in regularly scheduled “wellness walks” from October through March. “It’s a time when people don’t get out as much as usual. They have a safe place to walk, the air is clean and the views are gorgeous … but the focus is to keep moving,” says volunteer walk leader Elaine Bell.
A daily dose of nature, gained in as little as a 10-minute walk, is important for the health of adults and children alike, Dr. Faber Taylor believes. “We need to raise the priority of getting into nature,” she says.
Maybe outdoor exercising sounds lovely to you, but you’re worried that being in nature will trigger your allergies, asthma or other breathing problems. Talk with your health care provider about coordinating your activity interests with your health condition. Then consider these suggestions to help make exercising outdoors like a breath of fresh air for your body and spirits:
- If you have asthma, use your medications before exercising, in the manner prescribed by your physician. Do a five- to 10-minute warm-up. With the right treatment and management plan, people with exercise-induced asthma can participate safely in exercise, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
- Walking is a good exercise choice over activities that cause you to breathe faster, such as running or soccer.
- Higher ozone and pollutant levels can cause breathing problems, so check levels before exercising outdoors. Many online and print weather forecasts now report air-quality levels:
- 0 to 50 is good;
- 50 to 100 is not harmful, but could cause breathing problems for some people with asthma;
- above 100 is unhealthy if you have lung or heart disease and other conditions;
- above 150 is unhealthy for everyone.
- Exercise in the early morning or early evening, when pollution levels are lower.
- If you have breathing problems, avoid exercising outdoors in very cold weather.
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