Ditch The Gym For Improved Health, Says New Study


By Liz Meszaros

Growing up, did your mother ever tell you to “Take it outside”? She may have been more right than even she knew. Here’s why. Although all exercise is good for you, it turns out that exercising outdoors can offer you the most benefits—not in results like cardiovascular benefit or weight loss per se, but in reducing stress.

In a study, researchers found that taking your workout outdoors vs doing it indoors may have a calming effect simply because we perceive the outdoors as a more calming environment. Their results support a bevy of previous research that shows green spaces are just plain good for us, whether we’re enjoying a picnic or running a marathon.

And speaking of running a marathon, researchers also found that, of all the exercises studied—both indoor and outdoor—running outdoors offered the most benefits overall.

“We conducted a field study to test whether participants engaging in genuine green exercise sessions outdoors experienced more beneficial changes in mood, state stress and state anxiety than participants engaging in genuine non-green exercise sessions indoors,” noted the researchers, led by Sandra Klaperski, PhD, Department of Life Sciences, Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, London, United Kingdom.

They included 140 participants who were at least 18 years old and eligible to participate in an amateur collegiate sports session at the University of Freiburg (ie, students and university employees). Exercise was done in nine different indoor and outdoor settings. Indoor sports included aerobics, aqua aerobics, basketball, fencing, swimming, and volleyball. Outdoor sports were comprised of running, soccer, and mountain biking. All sports lasted 1.0–2.5 hours.

Participants all complete both pre- and post-questionnaires. Researchers assessed calmness and mood with the Multidimensional Mood State Questionnaire (MMSQ), anxiety with the State Trait Anxiety Inventory, and acute perceived stress levels with an adapted 10-item Perceived Stress Scales. The calmness and naturalness of the environment (from very artificial/urban to very natural) and perceived exercise intensity were also measured.

Upon analysis, researchers found that no matter what type of acute exercise the participants engaged in, all led to significant reductions in restlessness, bad mood, perceived stress levels, and state anxiety (all P < 0.001).

But, stress in the outdoor exercise group fell from 2.35 (out of a possible 5) to 2.05 (P < 0.001), compared with those who exercised indoors, who dropped from 2.42 to 2.23 (P < 0.001). Although both decreases were statistically significant in themselves, the difference between outdoors exercise and indoors was perhaps even more significant—and translated to a 13% drop in stress vs an 8% drop, respectively. Differences between the two groups in restlessness, bad mood, and anxiety were not significant.

Upon paired t-testing, significant improvements in mood and stress were seen only with swimming, running, and mountain biking.

Dr. Klaperski et al also found that running effected the greatest reductions in restlessness and bad mood levels, while mountain biking effected the greatest reductions in stress levels. Further, only running effected large improvements in all variables.

“This could nonetheless suggest that green exercise, and running outdoors in particular, has stronger positive effects on acute mood and perceived stress levels than non-green types of exercise,” wrote the authors, although they noted that clear support for this was not seen in their study, due to its design.

Those who participated in outdoor exercises rated their environments as significantly more natural and calming. The groups did not differ in their perceived levels of exercise intensity. Researchers observed that the calmer the environment, the lower the participants’ perceived stress levels.

And natural environments and calmness of the environment were correlated, leading Dr. Klaperski and colleagues to conclude: “Thus, green exercise might have more beneficial effects on state stress levels because natural environments are often being perceived as calming.”

They concluded that to reduce stress levels the most, exercisers should seek to do them in an environment that they perceive as calming—whether it is indoors or out.


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