If you are like most people, you have probably spent much of the day indoors, probably sitting. In fact, this is likely how you spend most days. According to one survey, the average American spends 15 hours per day sitting at work or at home. If you subtract sleeping, this accounts for nearly the entire day!
Prolonged sitting has been linked to negative health effects that are similar to those of not exercising. Even among people who do exercise, those who spend more time sitting tend to have more health problems than those who are more active during the day. Consider yourself lucky if you have a job that keeps you active.
The good news is that you can offset the health effects of sitting too much. Taking short breaks at work can improve attention and productivity. In fact, many time management and productivity techniques include periods of focused work separated by breaks. Using these breaks to get up and move is good for your body and your mind. The same is true at home – getting off the couch during TV commercials can have the same benefits.
Even greater benefits can be gained from dedicating more time to be active, especially regular exercise. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function and greater feelings of well-being.
Being active in a natural environment seems to have an even bigger impact on mental health. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children.
Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout. This is mostly due to the fact that you will likely walk or run faster outdoors, but other factors like wind resistance add to your effort. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, they don't necessarily feel it. In fact, ratings of effort are lower outdoors for the same exercise because the pleasant visual stimuli outdoors distracts you from unpleasant sensations of effort during exercise.
This is the same reason that listening to music makes exercise more enjoyable and why fitness centers have televisions on the walls or built into exercise equipment. Think of the outdoors as a really big TV screen!
Almost any indoor exercise can be moved outdoors. While walking, running and cycling are most obvious, resistance training exercises using body weight and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. Yoga and aerobics classes in the park are also great ways to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.
Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first 5 minutes, so even short bouts of activity are meaningful. It also means that going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances can have positive effects. At home, taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids or doing yard work are good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors.
Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier. So, go outside and play!
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet.