Research shows that taking your exercise outdoors compared to working out in a gym offers unique benefits for physical, cognitive, and emotional health. There’s even a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy, that encourages people to enhance their health and happiness by spending time “bathing in the atmosphere” of a forest.
Although there are not a lot of forests in Tucson, there are plenty of natural places for hiking, biking, golfing, and other pastimes—or simply taking a stroll. Many locals enjoy regular outdoor activity, and one of them is 82-year-old John Hemann, who lives at Splendido, an all-inclusive community for those 55 and better in Tucson. “I’m very healthy, and I attribute that largely to the walking,” he says. “I walk every day year-round, most of the time in the evening. Those walks are on sidewalks, but I also go for longer walks in the desert occasionally.”
John grew up on a farm in Illinois. “Of course, I spent a lot of time outdoors—that’s where I worked,” he recalls. “I guess being around trees and plants is in my blood.” While he found the green Illinois farmlands beautiful, he says, “the desert is beautiful too. The Sonoran Desert is the only desert like it in the world—it’s very green for a desert, and there’s a fair amount of vegetation here.”
John recalls how he started his walking habit: “When I was teaching and raising a family, I didn’t get as much exercise as when I was young,” he says. “In 1999 I was hospitalized for about a month, and when they released me I started walking—at first, just a little bit a day, then up to a mile a day, then up to three miles. I’ve been walking ever since.”
In addition to his daily walks, John golfs several times a week and enjoys taking care of cacti and flowers in the yard of his Villa Home at Splendido. Of course, the physical activity is good for him, but research has found more subtle benefits associated with these outdoor hobbies:
Simply being outdoors has a positive effect on your mood. Multiple studies have shown that regular exposure to “green areas” can cause our bodies to relax and let go of stress, as well as ease anxiety. One study found that people in nature had slower heart rates and lower levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol than those who spent time in the city. Spending time in nature has also been linked to boosts in serotonin and jumps in activity in the brain areas responsible for empathy and love.
Walking or exercising outdoors has also been proven to strengthen short-term memory. Of two groups that walked in a natural or urban setting, the nature walkers performed nearly 20% better on a brief memory test. Simply spending time in nature is also associated with improved concentration and attention spans.
Studies have linked time spent in nature with lower levels of inflammation, reduced hypertension, and even a stronger immune system.
Research comparing outdoor runners with those on treadmills found that people who run outside exert more energy than the treadmill runners; they also enjoy it more and therefore will run for longer periods of time.
Much of the research above also applies to exercising or spending time indoors as long as you are in or near natural light. If weather or other conditions prevent you from spending time outdoors, you can lower stress, boost concentration, and get the most out of exercise when you either sit or work out by windows with a view of nature.
The underlying theme to these benefits seems to be that being in a natural setting—or sometimes just looking at one—can reduce your stress, which in turn has a positive impact on your body, brain, and mood. So the next time you feel anxious or pressured, lace up your walking shoes and head for the hills!