Outdoor exercise may offer more benefits than indoor exercise, shows study

A review of research suggests exercising in a park or other natural setting is more beneficial than exercising indoors. Credit: Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications.

Health experts have long known that regular exercise helps prevent chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis.

It also boosts the immune system, reduces the risk of falls, and can extend life expectancy.

Exercise is also great for mental health, improving mood, reducing anxiety, and lowering the risk of dementia and depression.

Despite these benefits, most adults in the United States do not get the recommended 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Studies show that exercising outdoors in places like parks and trails can be especially effective.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how beneficial being in nature can be for physical and mental health.

However, until recently, little was known about whether exercising in natural settings provides more benefits than indoor exercise.

To explore this, Jay Maddock from Texas A&M University and Howard Frumkin from the Land and People Lab reviewed current scientific evidence.

Their study, published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, looked at how often people visit parks, how much they exercise there, and what benefits they get.

Their findings suggest that exercising in natural settings may indeed offer more benefits than indoor exercise.

Although most studies focused on short-term outcomes, the research indicates that natural settings are effective for promoting physical activity. People generally enjoy being outdoors, especially in parks, trails, and community gardens.

Factors that make these outdoor spaces attractive include community centers, playgrounds, good lighting, and clear signage. Natural features like tree canopies and water bodies also play a role, along with activities like classes and festivals. A welcoming environment, a sense of safety, and a strong connection to nature are important too.

However, access to these spaces varies. For example, 98% of Illinois residents live within half a mile of a park, but only 29% in Mississippi have the same access. Use of parks also differs among demographic groups.

Men are more likely than women to use parks for exercise. In Los Angeles, Black adults are less likely than white adults to engage in physical activity in parks, while Asian/Pacific Islanders are more likely.

To encourage the use of parks for exercise, Maddock and Frumkin suggest four strategies for health professionals:

  1. Prescribe Nature Contact: Recommend spending time in nature to patients, a practice known as “ParkRx.”
  2. Model the Behavior: Health professionals should engage in outdoor activities themselves, promoting healthy behaviors by example.
  3. Community Efforts: Support community initiatives that promote the use of outdoor spaces, like Houston’s Be Well Communities.
  4. Create and Maintain Parks: Help fund parks and greenspaces through Community Health Needs Assessments, Medicaid, and health care foundations.

Using parks and natural settings for exercise can be a powerful tool to improve both physical and mental health, especially since many Americans do not get enough exercise or spend enough time outdoors.

If you care about health, please read studies about how Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and the best time to take vitamins to prevent heart disease.

For more health information, please see recent studies that olive oil may help you live longer, and vitamin D could help lower the risk of autoimmune diseases.