We all have goals that we set ourselves and things can pop-up that may hinder our progress towards achieving those goals - work, family commitments, sudden and unpredictable upsets to our routines. Life happens; we just have to take each day as it comes. When we experience these upsets, it's important to remember exactly why we started, how far we've come, and the benefits and rewards we not only expect to receive in the future, but are already enjoying now.
One way to keep on track, regardless of what might be happening in our lives, is to apply variety to our activity schedules. As the old saying goes, variety is the "spice of life", and who doesn't want to spice-up their training schedule? One of the main reasons people choose not to continue with a training program is that they become bored with the repetitive nature of their program. Adding outdoor activity to your training program is an easy and fun way to add variety. These types of activities can include anything from hiking a nature trail to running up sand dunes, but more on that further down.
In 1948 the World Health Organisation defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". Although someone may claim that they do not like the outdoors, it's almost guaranteed that there is something about the environment they enjoy - watching a beautiful sunset, the sound of birdsong in the morning, the feel of ocean waves lapping around your ankles on the beach, the stillness and beauty experienced when walking along a nature trail. Some people believe that we, as humans, find peace and happiness in certain natural environments, and that this directly contributes to our overall health and well-being(3).
Benefits of Exercising Outdoors
There have been numerous studies conducted to ascertain the benefits obtained from participating in outdoor activities. Exposure to the natural environment has been shown to improve overall health and well-being. “Nature-deficit disorder”, a term coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, simply refers to the fact that human beings are not spending enough time in and with nature. He believes that this can lead to significant behavioural, emotional, mental and physical issues (1, 4, 8).
Depending on the type of activity you decide to do, exercising outdoors can be a great way to have some time to yourself and to recharge for the days ahead. This can be achieved through solo hikes along nature trails, or doing a high intensity interval session in the park. On the other hand, training with a friend, or friends, is fun. They can help challenge and motivate you and getting outside can also be a great way to catch-up with friends and family while enjoying a number of health benefits.
Participating in outdoor activities has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety and anger, thus improving mood. Due to the inconsistent and varying nature of the environment, it challenges and improves our mental focus. Our bodies are also challenged through the utilisation of more muscles, for example, due to the uneven ground cover (8), and depending on the intensity of the session, you can expect gradual improvements in your cardio-pulmonary health.
Being outdoors helps ensure we get adequate Vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for strong bones, muscles and overall health. The body absorbs Vitamin D from the UV rays of the sun. It’s important to remember that the body is limited in the amount of Vitamin D it can absorb and spending extended periods of time in the sun can increase your risk of developing skin cancer (8, 9, 11).
Types of Outdoor Activities
There are a variety of natural settings, and outdoor man-made structures in which you can take advantage of for your physical activity pursuits, including sand, stairs, nature trails and parks. The activities that can be done in these settings are endless.
Stair workouts are super popular, help build strength and power, and are a great way to get your heart rate up, plus they are super versatile. You can take one step at a time, two steps at a time, double foot jump, fast-paced, slow-paced – the options are endless. Stair training is a full body workout and tones the muscles in the legs and arms. It is also considered a weight bearing exercise because you are working against gravity. This helps improve bone density. Given the intense nature of the exercise, there is an increase in heart rate and breathing rate which improves cardio-pulmonary health over time (7).
Running on sand and/or up sand dunes provides a great challenge. It is much harder to run on the sand than it is to run on a treadmill but the gains are greater. The muscles of the feet and legs have to work harder due to the greater resistance provided by the sand. The core muscles are also engaged and must work harder to help stabilise the body on the uneven surface. Running on sand also increases your calorie burn because more muscles are used, and so more energy is required (5, 10, 11).
There are some beautiful places to explore which help keep things fun and interesting. Hiking on nature trails is a great way to enjoy the environment while adding more variety to your exercise program. Similar to running on sand, walking on uneven ground requires the use of more muscles which uses more energy and results in more calories being burnt (11).
Things to Remember when Exercising Outdoors
As with any kind of physical activity, there are some risks, but here are some tips to minimise any risks of injury and to ensure you enjoy your outdoor experience (6).
- Ensure you complete an appropriate warm-up: Many people forget about this component of their outdoor activity. It is particularly important if you plan to do something with a moderate to high intensity level such as beach or stair runs. As mentioned above, the muscles are challenged during these activities as they are highly variable, and tend to occur on uneven and unpredictable terrain. Completing an appropriate warm-up will ensure the muscles, tendons and joints are adequately prepared for the activity and will thus reduce the risk of an injury.
- Drink adequate amounts of water before, during and after the activity: We all know how important it is to drink water consistently throughout the day, every day. Adults should drink at least 2 litres of water a day, and more when they’re participating in physical activity. It’s particularly important to consume adequate amounts of water when it’s warm outside as you’re more at risk of dehydration.
- Consume a post-workout snack: As with any exercise, our body burns up our fuel stores to keep us going throughout the activity. Consuming a small snack composed mainly of carbohydrates and protein following a workout will assist with recovery and optimise the workout. Furthermore, participating in physical activity outside, particularly if it is hotter than normal and/or humid, may result in a decrease in appetite. Consuming a snack after the workout will help reduce the risk of binge eating later in the day when you get your appetite back.
- Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide: Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade (where appropriate) and slide on some sunglasses (2). According to the Cancer Council, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. The majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun and so in order to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, when participating in outdoor activities, remember to slip, slop, slap, seek and slide!
- Avoid the hottest part of the day: Participating in physical activity during the hottest part of the day will increase your risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It is best not to be physically active during these times but if you do decide to participate in activity, do something low in intensity and low impact, such as a brisk walk. This will ensure your heart rate does not increase too much and your body won't have to work overtime to counter-act the effects of the heat. You should also definitely apply numbers 2 and 4 above.
- Apply insect repellent: Living in Australia means we have lots of little beasties to deal with when we are out and about. Although some are just annoying, such as the ever present fly, some may be harmful, such as the mosquito, which are known to carry many different diseases. It's always best to apply insect repellent to keep these critters at bay. This is particularly important if you plan on venturing down a nature trail that may be prone to mosquitoes and leeches – these are normally trails that include a lot of moist vegetation and/or leaf cover, and stagnant water.
- Wear the correct clothing and footwear: Remember to wear appropriate footwear for outdoor activities – something that supports the ankles with sturdy soles is best. For days that are predicted to be warm, look to clothing that is light and “airy” to minimise the risk of overheating. For days that are cooler, consider wearing layers that are easy to remove once you’ve warmed-up.
- Be vigilant and pay attention to the environment: If you’re planning on hiking a nature trail, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has a great website, and a really handy App, that allows you to check for any current alerts for areas that you may plan on visiting. Do your research and plan your trip accordingly. You may want to consider checking local council websites to ensure the area you plan on visiting is accessible and no maintenance works are being done at that time. Once, you’re out and about it can be easy to become distracted with what you’re doing. Be aware of things like uneven terrain and obstacles, both on trails and in parks. Take note of any traffic that may be close to areas where you plan to conduct outdoor activities. Lastly, we live in a beautiful country with lots of unique and exciting plants and animals. Most critters mean us no harm but as you know, some can be quite dangerous. Exercise caution in areas that may be prone to visits from the more dangerous creepy crawlies, such as areas with lots of trees and grass.
Including outdoor activities in your schedule is a great way to complement your training program by adding variety and a change of scenery. It gives you an opportunity to spend time with friends and family, enjoy our beautiful country and will help improve your physical, mental and emotional well-being. If you do decide to venture outdoors, remember - take only photos, leave only footprints.
References and Further Reading
Bowler, DE, Buyung-Ali, LM, Knight, TM & Pullin, AS 2010, "A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments", BMC Public Health, [online], vol. 10, no. 456, Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2924288/, Accessed: 26 February 2020
Cancer Council (2015), Skin Cancer, [online], Available at: https://www.cancer.org.au/preventing-cancer/sun-protection/about-skin-cancer.html, Accessed: 26 February 2020
Frumkin, H 2001, "Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment", American Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 234-240
Gladwell, VF, Brown, DK, Wood, C, Sandercock, GR & Barton, JL 2013, “The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all”, Extreme Physiology & Medicine, vol. 2, no. 3, DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1186%2F2046-7648-2-3, Accessed: 29 February 2020
Naughton, J 2016, Training outdoors: five ways to take your workout outside, [online], Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/08/25/training-outdoors-five-ways-to-take-your-workout-outside_a_21459135/, Accessed: 27 February 2020
Sinrich, J 2017, Exercising outside? Don't make these 11 common mistakes, [online], Available at: https://www.cheatsheet.com/health-fitness/mistakes-almost-everyone-makes-exercising-outside.html/, Accessed: 26 February 2020
Stadium Stomp 2015, Five benefits of stair climbing, Available at: https://www.stadiumstomp.com/five-benefits-of-stair-climbing/, Accessed: 29 February 2020
Worst, T 2016, The many benefits of outdoor exercise, [online], Available at: https://www.workoutaustralia.com.au/news/the-many-benefits-of-outdoor-exercise, Accessed: 27 February 2020
Victoria State Government, Health and Human Services 2018, Vitamin D, [online], Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/vitamin-d, Accessed: 29 February 2020
Wingenfeld S 2019, Running on the beach: you’ve got to try it!, [online], Available at: https://www.runtastic.com/blog/en/benefits-of-running-on-the-beach/, Accessed: 29 February 2020
Wrench, S 2019, 14 Reasons to do a workout outdoors today, [online], Available at: https://www.menshealth.com/uk/fitness/a756705/training-outdoors/, Accessed: 28 February 2020