It’s common to prioritise the gym when it comes to exercise. The gym is made an easy concept with the machines, classes, changing rooms and showers.
It’s a man made environment set up for exercise.
However, do we ever stop to question is this man made environment with smooth treadmills and assisted machines really the best way to exercise and is it good for your body, health and fitness goals?
It depends on many factors.
However, the research clearly shows that exercising outside in a natural setting has a multitude of additional benefits on top of the exercise itself.
Additional benefits that will likely help you achieve your health and fitness targets.
Additional benefits that are so profound that I believe if being active outside was a drug it would be worth billions for pharmaceutical companies.
The good news is that there are signs that the medical profession is cottoning on to this with Shetland doctors in Scotland recently starting to prescribe time outdoors in nature as medicine.
And with busy modern lifestyles when we feel we don’t have time to exercise, it’s good to know what your best ‘bang for your buck’ is when it comes to health and fitness.
So what does exercising outside offer on top of exercise in the gym
1. Breathe better air quality
The quality of the air we breathe has a significant impact on our mental and physical health and wellbeing (as well as being vital for life!).
Our ancestors spent most of their time outside. Today, of course, this is not the case. The average person spends at least 90% of their time inside buildings, as our needs have evolved from hunting for food to following social media updates.
However, indoor air quality is often overlooked. Recent research indicates that indoor air quality is twice as bad as outdoor air quality.
This is likely exacerbated in a busy, sweaty gym where the temperature is controlled by air conditioning or inadequate ventilation and people are breathing heavily.
A startling study found that high levels of toxins were found in gyms exposing people to potentially high levels of gases.
The irony is you go to a gym to be healthier, but breathing in poor quality air can actually do more harm than good.
Poor indoor air quality can lead to headaches, coughing, dizziness or low energy.
What makes this such a hidden health issue is that it’s not obvious to the senses, it’s invisible and odourless. Indoor air quality is one of the most serious environmental threats to your health, yet no agency in the UK regulates it.
So being outside in a local park will almost certainly be better for the quality of air that you breathe and improve the health of your respiratory system.
2. Boosts sleep and vitamin D levels
Deep sleep is absolutely huge for your health and to allow your body to regenerate and function properly.
You can have the perfect workout and diet but if you don’t get deep sleep it doesn’t matter.
And daylight is absolutely critical for sleep.
Many of us are suffering from a natural light deficiency and an overdose of artificial light inside buildings and staring at screens all day!
Light intensity is measured in lux units, and on any given day, the outdoor lux units will be around 100,000 at noon.
Exposing yourself to natural daylight for just 30 minutes a day, is incredibly beneficial to help your body achieve a deep state of sleep.
This is the case even if it is cloudy outside and helps you set your body’s daily circadian rhythm (biological clock) to promote better sleep.
Moreover, natural daylight boosts vitamin D levels which are vital for boosting the immune system and energy levels.
According to the latest Diet and Nutrition survey, a quarter of the UK population is deficient in vitamin D.
Moreover, the World Health Organisation says Vitamin D deficiency is thought to be a widespread public health problem globally but especially in places with limited sun exposure, such as Scotland in the winter.
As vitamin D can’t easily be obtained from food sources, the best ways to ensure adequate levels is to get outside and use a supplement.
Getting outside is the most natural way to obtain vitamin D.
Yet we now live in fear of getting cancer whenever we go out and the sun is shining so we immediately slap on the sunscreen.
Some sun exposure is incredibly healthy!
Plus many sunscreens have harmful ingredients in them and block out your bodies ability to absorb vitamin D.
So aim for at least 30 of daylight minutes a day.
With regards to a vitamin D supplement, the NHS recommends 10mcg a day. However, be sure not to take more than 100mcg of vitamin D a day as it could be harmful and have the opposite effect of weakening bones and damage kidneys.
3. Less likely to get sick
Have you ever wondered just how clean your gym is?
I always try to make sure I wipe down the equipment after use. But few others are.
However, the reality is that most gyms are full of germs.
With a constant turnover of sweaty bodies, heavily used equipment and poor ventilation/air conditioning it’s no surprise.
But what may be a surprise is just how dirty gyms are. One study found that free weights have up to 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.
Moreover, there are many infections that can be caught in the gym.
On the other hand, being outside boosts your immune system and helps reduce the likelihood that you will become sick.
4. Improve mental stress and anxiety
We live in a world full of stress and anxiety with 1 in 4 people experiencing some kind of mental health issue at any given time.
Turning up at a busy and intimidating gym to do a ‘bodyattack’ class probably isn’t going to do much to improve this.
In fact, it may exacerbate the hormone cortisol and increase stress.
I am coming to realise that I need to be outside in a park. It’s not optional for me, it’s essential to be able to function.
It changes the way I think and feel.
It calms me down and helps clear my mind in a natural setting.
And there’s much research to prove this.
Researchers at Glasgow University concluded that exercising outside is twice as good for mental health when compared with the gym.
A systematic review of indoor v outdoor exercise concluded that exercising in nature afforded people a greater feeling of revitalization and positive energy, as well as decreasing tension, confusion, anger and depression.
Moreover, the subjects in the studies performed much better in cognitive tests.
So being outdoors in an environment like the park also helps with focus, which will probably in turn help with you with your life goals to feel more energised and productive.
The parasympathetic nerve system controls the body’s rest and digest system while the sympathetic nerve system controls the fight or flight response.
And numerous studies in Japan have shown that spending time in a forest has real therapeutic health benefits to decrease stress.
But you don’t need a forest, just find a local park with some trees.
5. Connect with the environment and nature
Everyday, the gym always looks exactly the same.
However, outside the environment is always a little bit different depending on many variables.
And variety is the spice of life.
The terrain and environment is more uneven outside which forces your body to adapt.
It heightens the senses. The sounds of birds or the smell of spring.
It’s always a good thing to stop and disconnect from our virtual man made worlds to connect with nature.
Moreover, gyms are very resource intensive from heating to air conditioning to water use.
Skipping the gym will not only improve your natural senses but it will reduce the impact on the environment and subsequently your and future generations quality of life.
6. Helps prevent aging diseases
The connection between less time outdoors and the acceleration of dementia is considerable.
Studies have shown that getting outside just three times a week for a short walk improves symptoms of dementia.
Moreover, the multiple authors of an Open University research paper entitled The impact of early dementia on outdoor life: A ‘shrinking world’? claim that “maintaining outdoor activity is likely to be an effective preventative measure in extending the period of good quality living”.
Exercising outside has a plethora of health benefits over and above the gym
We are devolving in terms of the quality of air, light and man made environments we are exposed to.
The good news is that even a short period of time outside can do wonders for your health and fitness targets.
Whether it’s losing weight, improving strength,looking better, feeling better or becoming less stressed it is about lifestyle.
And the great thing with exercising outdoors is that it ticks off so many aspects of your lifestyle that you can do that help with all of the above goals.
It’s the best bang for your buck in terms of health.
And with so many of us lacking time to exercise being active outside really is the best solution if you are busy.
Inclement weather and safety concerns might be an issue depending on where you are but here in a beautiful city like Edinburgh where there is as much green space as built up space it makes sense to exercise outside.
So come and exercise outside with me.
I offer fun and social team based fitness games or 1:1 mobile PT in parks around Edinburgh.
Please contact me if you have any questions or want to find out more.