Exercise has such powerful mental and physical benefits that it’s been called “the ultimate wonder drug.” Moving your workout outdoors can dramatically increase these beneficial effects: Physical activity in natural settings has been linked to longer life, lower rates of illness — including heart attack and stroke — and a greater sense of well-being, reports the American Public Health Association.
To keep your heart healthy, the American Heart Association and the BaleDoneen Method recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, such as walking, jogging, biking, or swimming. Always check with your medical provider before starting a new workout to make sure it’s right for you — and be sure to slather on some sunscreen and stay hydrated during outdoor exercise. Here’s a look at seven science-backed benefits of “green exercise.”
- A vitamin D boost and 22% lower risk for heart attack. A recent Harvard study of more than 18,000 people found that people who exercise vigorously (such as running or jogging) 3 or more hours weekly have a 22% lower risk for heart attack — for a reason that might surprise you. The researchers discovered that people who work out vigorously have higher levels of vitamin D. “People who exercise tend to be out in the sun, which raises their vitamin D level,” lead study author Andrea Chomistek stated. Another large study highlighted the risks of not getting enough of the sunshine vitamin: Those with the lowest vitamin D levels were 40% more likely to develop heart disease and 81% more likely to die from it than those with optimal levels.
- A brighter mood in minutes. Getting even 5 minutes of physical activity in a natural setting — such as hiking, cycling, horseback riding, or gardening — benefits mental health by raising mood, self-esteem and sense of personal well-being, according to a study of more than 1,200 people. Other recent research reports that exercising outdoors is linked to greater feelings of revitalization and energy and reduced tension, confusion, depression and anger, compared to indoor workouts.
- A natural way to sleep better. In a 2015 study, men and older adults who spend time in green spaces, whether it’s biking in a nearby park, walking along a sandy beach, or simply enjoying an ocean view, report improved sleep. “It’s hard to overestimate the importance of high-quality sleep,” said researcher Diana Grigsby-Toussaint. “Studies show that inadequate sleep is associated with declines in mental and physical health, reduced cognitive function, and increased obesity.” Skimping on slumber also raises heart attack and stroke risk.
- Lower blood pressure. At every age, green exercise has cardiovascular benefits. For example, a 2014 study of children found that those who viewed natural scenes (such as a video of a forest environment) while biking had lower blood pressure 15 minutes later, compared to kids who didn’t see the video. Outdoor sports and play also help protect children from developing diabetes, heart disease, and even nearsightedness, and cut their risk for depression and anxiety.
- A healthier heart rate. Not only does a lunchtime walk in nature spark immediate improvements in physical and psychological well-being, but it also continues to improve heart health later in the day, a 2016 study found. On two different days, study participants either walked 1.8 kilometers in a built or natural environment at a similar pace at lunchtime, then their heart rate variability (HRV) was measured that night as they slept. After green exercise, participants had increased HRV at night, suggesting that nature walks may enhance cardiovascular wellness and help protect against CVD. Reduced HRV has been identified as a risk factor for developing heart disease.
- A more vigorous workout. Whether you are jogging on the beach, hiking on a mountain trail, or biking through a beautiful nature preserve, your body is constantly adapting to a changing environment, which can increase the intensity of your workout, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The organization also reports that natural resistance from the wind can help you burn more calories.
- Longer life. Want to add up to 7 years to your life? Lace up your sneakers and take a 20-to-25-minute outdoor walk daily. In a 2015 study of people ages 30 to 60, those who engaged in daily aerobic activity, including brisk walking, jogging, and high-intensity interval training, had anti-aging benefits that could increase their lifespan by 3 to 7 years. This fun fitness tip can help you move more: Listening to upbeat music not only makes walking more enjoyable, but can boost your endurance by up to 15%, according to ACE. That’s a wonderful reason to plug in your headphones, go outdoors, and start putting more spring into your step!