Okay, first things first. There’s nothing wrong with working out at the gym. In fact, there are a lot of benefits. Taking classes with other people can be energizing, and having a class that you’ve paid money for scheduled in advance will probably make you less likely to skip your workout. Also, gyms have equipment that you may not want to shell out money on yourself — and that’s if you even have space for it in your home. Gyms also have the advantage of having trainers on staff, so if you’re unsure about how to do a particular exercise or you need general guidance, there’s someone there to ask.
So clearly, gyms have a lot going for them. But as with most good things, it can be a good idea to take a break now and then. There are also a lot of benefits to exercising outside in the fresh air. So if you’re someone who exclusively exercises indoors, here are a few reasons why you might want to add in an outdoor activity every so often.
Change of scenery
Most of us spend the vast majority of our time indoors. We work in offices all day, then come home to our houses and apartments at night. And if we exercise in the gym, that means the only outdoor time we’re likely to get is walking from each indoor location to our cars. But having a change of scenery can be mentally stimulating. Taking some time out of your day to experience different surroundings can act like a mental reset button. It can shake you out of the rut that’s so easy to fall into as you go through the daily grind. Also, there are those of us who, although we may choose to workout in gyms, find it a little boring at times. For example, running on a treadmill can get pretty repetitive, but going on an outdoor jog may be more interesting and enjoyable.
It’s true that there are risks associated excessive UV exposure, and this is something we all need to be mindful of. However, there are risks that go along with too little sunlight, as well. One of the primary benefits of sunlight is that it triggers a reaction in the skin that causes vitamin D to be synthesized (unlike other vitamins, which must be absorbed through food). And vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor bone health, among other health issues.
A 2014 study found that walking significantly increased participants’ scores on the Guilford’s alternate use test, which tests “creative divergent thinking.” And walking outside “produced the most novel and highest quality analogies” — meaning that outdoor walking had the most intense impact on creativity.
Better mood and self-esteem
A meta-analysis of several studies found that “green exercise” or “activity in the presence of nature” has an effect on both long-term and short-term health outcomes, including mood and self-esteem. Outdoor activity for even short bursts of time — spending as little as five minutes outdoors — had a positive impact on self-esteem for both men and women. For men, it positively impacted mood as well. Activity in the presence of water was also shown to have benefits.
More opportunities for variety
One of the major factors that can sabotage our ability to maintain a workout routine over the long term is boredom. Doing the same workout day in and day out can easily make it feel like just one more chore to check off of your to-do list. But with exercising outside, there may be more opportunities to mix it up. If you walk, jog or bike, simply changing your route can keep your exercise routine fun and interesting.
Exercise feels easier
A 2012 study found that the color green was associated with lower feelings of exertion among bicyclers. It stands to reason, then, that exercising in natural environments with plenty of trees would make exercising feel less strenuous. And for many people, it stands up anecdotally, as well. It is not uncommon to hear individual reports of spinning or running on a treadmill feeling more difficult than biking or running outdoors, for example.
At the end of the day, any kind of exercise you can get is probably a good thing. Many of us have very busy schedules, and it can be a challenge to find the time to workout on a regular basis. If you enjoy going to the gym, by all means, keep doing it. But it can be helpful to keep in mind that there may be specific benefits associated with exercising outdoors. It’s not something to stress about — if it’s easier for you to workout at the gym, there’s no need to get down on yourself for not exercising outdoors. But if you’re able to break things up with an outdoor workout now and then, you will most likely benefit from it.
— Sarah Cooke