Outside chance for enjoying your walk

A new study found that outdoor exercise is better for you–far better for you–than indoor exercise. Especially if you’re an older adult.

The idea of exercising indoors would have baffled our grandparents. Not so long ago, most people got all the exercise they needed by going about their daily activities–working outside or simply walking outside.

All that changed when thoroughly modern Americans stopped doing their own housework and yard work. Now we climb into our cars and commute to the office. And if we exercise, many of us do it in a gym.

But emerging science suggests that outdoor exercise is the only way to go. It has many benefits. And you cannot replicate these benefits by running on a treadmill. Or riding a recumbent bicycle. Or walking on an indoor track.

Many experts try to reduce the human body to a machine. They say we must balance calories in with calories out. And this will keep the machine running and in balance.

But science shows that not all calories taken in are alike. For example, the body processes sugar calories different from protein. And it has an even harder time processing high-fructose corn syrup.

So too is it with calories expended. In fact, not all caloric expenditure is the same.

The human being does not work just like a mechanical equation. We think, feel and respond to our environment.

Granted, we can measure some of the benefits to outdoor versus indoor exercise in mechanical terms.

For example, the stride of walking, running, or cycling on natural surfaces is different. Natural surfaces have different textures. They are not all hard, but can be soft. Plus, they’re not all flat. They have natural inclines.

So when you walk, run, or cycle outside, you constantly flex your ankles and feet. You don’t just pound away on the same flat surface. You also go up and down. This uses muscles differently.

Some of the newer indoor exercise contraptions use computer programs to simulate an outdoor physical regimen. But these simulations just aren’t as good as the real thing. They’re not as good as cycling for real through the Alps. If you are interested in competing in the Tour de France, or even just riding through your local parklands, beware of vehicle traffic. And don’t be a nuisance to drivers on the way. Better yet, transport your bicycle to a safe and healthy environment for cycling.

Outdoor exercise has other advantages. Besides just mechanical.

Simply put, being outdoors is more enjoyable.

When you exercise outside, you’re surrounded by nature. Instead of artificial machines resembling medieval torture devices. Outside, you can listen to the sounds of birds, water, and wind in the trees. Instead of the grunts and growls of hormone-charged zealots.

Outside, you breathe fresh air. Instead of the foul-smelling emissions of overheated rubber surfaces, sweaty clothes, and “amped-up” bodies guzzling fluorescent “sports” and “energy” drinks.

And outside, you walk in natural sunlight. Instead of artificial lighting. You also avoid exposure to flesh-eating bacteria that escaped from hospitals. And now happily grow on gym surfaces.

And there are also psychological benefits to exercising outside…

Those who engage in outdoor exercise consistently perform better on psychological tests than those who perform the same exercise indoors. They score higher on enthusiasm, pleasure, self-esteem, and vitality. And they score lower on depression, fatigue, and tension. In short, outside exercise is simply better for the mind and body.

This effect appears to be even more important as we get older.

In a recent study at the University of California, San Diego, researchers followed 754 men and women who regularly exercised. The participants were 66 years and older. The researchers found that men and women who exercised outdoors did it more frequently, longer, and more consistently, compared to their indoor-exercising peers.

So–outdoor exercise represents a virtuous cycle. It’s more physically natural. And it makes you feel better. So you end up doing even more of it.

And, of course, exposure to sunlight outdoors has real health benefit of its own in terms of vitamin D.

Beyond even all this, there is the “mind-body” benefit of exposure to nature.

People have lower levels of cortisol–the chronic stress hormone–when exercising outdoors. It simply makes them feel better. I will report more on cortisol in the May 2013 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you haven’t become a subscriber yet, you can get started here.

So, this week, go outside and get some fresh air. Save your money and stop paying those expensive indoor health center fees for what turns out to be not-so-healthy exercise in an unhealthy environment.

The researcher who led the U.C. San Diego study on older Americans stated, “despite the fitness industry boom, we are not seeing changes in national physical activity levels, so gyms are not the answer.”

Nature is all around us. And it’s free. So get outside and start feeling good. What can be so bad about feeling good?


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21291246

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22846594