Exercising in a natural setting is more beneficial than exercising indoors

Health practitioners and fitness enthusiasts have long recognized the numerous health benefits of regular physical activity, including the prevention of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and osteoporosis.

Exercise also boosts immune function and pain management, reduces fall risk, and increases life expectancy. Mental health benefits include improved mood, reduced anxiety, and a decreased risk of dementia and depression.

Despite these advantages, over three-quarters of adults in the United States do not meet the recommended guidelines of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity.

Research has shown that outdoor environments like parks and trails are effective settings for physical activity. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the value of these spaces. Being in nature offers physical and mental health benefits similar to those of exercise.

However, the potential additive benefits of exercising in natural settings remain underexplored. Could outdoor exercise amplify the benefits of physical activity and encourage more people to engage in exercise? And if so, how can health professionals promote this behavior?

To address these questions, Jay Maddock, Regents Professor at the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University and director of the Center for Health & Nature, along with Howard Frumkin, Hagler Fellow and senior vice president and director of the Land and People Lab, reviewed existing scientific evidence on physical activity in natural settings and developed strategies for promoting these activities.

Their study, published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, identified several factors that influence how often people visit parks and natural areas, how much physical activity they engage in there, and the benefits they derive from it.

Maddock and Frumkin found that exercising in a park or natural setting is generally more beneficial than exercising indoors. However, most studies focused on short-term outcomes of less than a year, so the long-term benefits remain uncertain.

“Despite this, the research clearly shows that natural settings are effective venues for promoting physical activity,” Maddock said. “People generally enjoy being outdoors, with parks, trails, and community gardens being the most popular venues.”

Features that make these venues attractive include community centers, playgrounds, lighting, clear signage, tree canopies, and well-maintained bodies of water. Events such as classes and festivals, along with a welcoming environment, a sense of safety, and a connection to nature, also enhance their appeal.

“Parks and trails are particularly important due to their accessibility and widespread availability, but access varies significantly by geography, with rural areas often having less access to natural spaces due to more privately held land,” Maddock noted. “For instance, nearly 98 percent of Illinois residents live within half a mile of a park, compared to only 29 percent in Mississippi.”

Maddock and Frumkin also found demographic differences in the use of parks and green spaces for physical activity. Men are more likely than women to use these spaces for exercise. In Los Angeles, Black adults are less likely than white adults to engage in physical activity in parks, while English-speaking Latinos are equally likely, and Asian/Pacific Islanders are more likely.

With these complexities in mind, Maddock and Frumkin suggest four strategies for healthcare professionals to encourage the use of parks and natural settings by their patients.

One approach is to “prescribe” nature contact to patients.

“Recommending that patients spend more time in these settings, known as nature prescriptions or ‘ParkRx,’ has shown promise, although more research is needed,” Maddock said.

Source: Science Daily