The Benefits of Exercising Outdoors

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By: Dr. Rebecca Van Heuklon

It’s that time of year in Wisconsin! With the snow finally melted, temperatures rising, and the sun coming out, the outdoors are calling people to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. Exercising outside this time of year can be a great way to add some variety to your workout routine and gain the benefits that ONLY working out in the great outdoors can provide.

First, exercising outside is energizing and can help recharge your batteries. Breathing in the clean, fresh air is good for the soul. It can even relieve stress and reinforce positive thinking. Who doesn’t need a little more of that in their day? Research has proven that exercising in an area with lots of green (i.e. grass, trees) and blue (water) effectively reduce cortisol levels (stress hormone) and can improve heart rate variability, an important marker for heart health.

Being outdoors can help prevent boredom. How exciting is it to step onto that treadmill and stare at the same wall in front of you day in and day out? Try a different path or road. Mix it up! It helps get rid of the monotony and repetitiveness of working out and keeps you looking forward to what you will see on your next trip. Getting outdoors also provides the opportunity for variety, because there are so many different things you can do to stay active. You can take a walk, bike ride, roller blade, or scooter in your neighborhood. You can find different walking paths and hiking trails. The Fox Valley offers many different trails and paved paths you can take advantage of to get some new scenery. Here is a link for trails available in our area. The Fox Cities also offers lots of water activities beyond basic swimming, like water skiing, paddle boarding, and kayaking. You can pull out your yoga mat and do some stretches, body weight resistance exercises or yoga moves on your lawn or deck. Grab a tennis racquet and volley the ball around with a partner. By doing different exercises/activities and changing up your routine, it decreases your risk for repetitive, overuse injuries and gives your body more well-rounded training.

Being active outside can also provide distractions. Take in the nature. Watch the squirrels chase each other on your next walk. Observe how the breeze makes the leaves dance in the trees. What are the neighbors doing with their landscaping? Next time you look at your watch, 15 minutes have flown by without you even realizing it. You might even double your usual exercise time or distance and not even know it. This sounds much more appealing that staring at that countdown clock on your machine at home or in the gym!

You can even get a more intense workout when you exercise outside. When you are on a machine, the speed and incline on a treadmill or the resistance on a stationary bike does not necessarily change. Unless you are using a preset workout routine on your machine that varies the intensity, you might be keeping that incline or resistance at a standstill. When you are out on the roads or a path, you can’t control when you come up to a hill, curb, or uneven ground/gravel/sidewalks. This natural variation in outdoor running courses is actually easier on the body, since slight undulations in paths relieve muscle tension in variable muscles compared to walking or running on a treadmill. If you choose a path or trail with hills, you have an option to work a little harder, get your heart rate up, increase your breathing, and burn a few more calories.

Another great advantage to exercising outside is that it is inexpensive. You don’t need to pay for a gym membership or need to spend money on gas to walk outside or ride your bike. It is also very convenient and easy to just step outside and go with no driving necessary. You don’t need to wait for your machine to open up, follow a class schedule or work your day around your gym’s hours. It is ready when you are. Because of the quick and easy access, you can work activity into your day with more ease, whether it is in the morning, over lunch, or when you get home after your work day. You are more likely to take a 10-minute walk than commit to a 15-minute drive to and from the gym plus the time for your workout.

While there are some great advantages to exercising outside, there are also a few considerations to take into account for safety and to guarantee a positive experience. Time of day can be important when deciding when to be active outside. Aim for exercising early or late in the day to avoid peak temperature and sun times. If you have to be out mid-day, stay in the shade whenever possible to limit sun. If you are doing yoga or resistance training in the grass, find a shady spot to avoid the sun. Also, remember to avoid prolonged sun exposure if you are taking medication that increases sensitivity to the sun. If you know you will be out in the sun, you can prepare by applying sunscreen ample time before going out, wearing sunglasses, and wearing sun protective clothing that offers UV protection.

Don’t forget to check the weather before going outside to know the temperature, humidity, and allergen levels. If you know it will be hot and humid, be sure to wear clothing that is light colored and light weight. Loose and breathable clothing can help keep you cool. If you have allergies, check the pollen count before heading outside. If the count is very high, you may want to avoid exercising outside that day. Pollen counts are highest in the morning (5-10 AM), so avoid exercising early and shoot for late afternoon or evening if possible. You can also limit exposure to pollen by staying away from weedy fields. Consider walking downtown or in a more residential area rather than out in the country where fields produce more pollen. Finally, when you are finished outside, change your clothes and shower immediately after exercising to remove any pollen.

When being active outside, it is necessary to set realistic expectations. Remember that the humidity and high temperatures can affect your workout. You will probably not be able to do the same workout you were doing yesterday in a temperature-controlled gym outside on an 80+ degree, humid day. Also, running outside on the ground is not the same as walking or running on a treadmill. Your muscles do not have to work as hard when the ground moves under you on a treadmill; therefore, you may get fatigued quicker outside. In addition, the ground is not flat/level like a treadmill, making your body have to work harder. Start small and work your time, distance, and pace up gradually as you acclimate to being outside. When you are exercising and being active outdoors, it is vital to be aware of your surroundings. There is much more unpredictability when you are outside, including traffic, other people, and tripping hazards (rocks, cracks, roots, etc.). Remember to wear visible clothing that is reflective and add extra bike reflectors if your work-out will take you into dusk and beyond. Also, for your safety, it may be helpful to avoid using headphones, as this can be distracting and limit your ability to hear what is happening around you. Always tell a friend or loved one when and where you will be exercising if you are going out alone, and what time they should expect you to return. Be sure to walk, run, or ride with a partner if venturing on empty, rural trails with few people around. Consider carrying your phone and other personal protection items you might need in the event of an unexpected emergency.

The most important consideration to take into account when being active outside is to know your limits and listen to your body. With all the distractions out there, be sure to pay attention to what your body is feeling and respond accordingly. Signs that it might be time to rest, find some shade, or head back inside include dizziness, lightheadedness, weakness, headache, muscle cramping, lack of sweating despite the heat, rapid heart rate, nausea or vomiting. Follow these considerations to stay active and safe while being active in our beautiful surroundings here in the Fox Valley.