Why exercising outdoors is so important for your physical and mental health

The worst thing about lockdown is that we have been cooped up for far too long – and a lack of movement coupled with too much time indoors is not a good recipe for our well-being.

Many of us have been doing what we can to stay active, running or working out in the living room – but without our gyms and regular instructors, motivation and consistency have proved major barriers.

But with lockdown restrictions finally easing, we have an opportunity to embrace the outdoors and enjoy the outside world beyond our back gardens – it could be just what we need to reset this stressful, confusing year.

And the benefits of exercising outdoors can’t be overstated.

A 2018 study by the University of East Anglia found that exposure to green space has ‘significant and wide-ranging health benefits’, including reduced risks of type II diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease – and loads of mental health benefits.

‘Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn’t been fully understood,’ said study author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett.

‘One of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress,.

‘This is really important because in the UK, 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety.’

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Jo Moseley is a fitness blogger who is passionate about fitness and physical activity for people over 50.

She loves exercising outdoors and says it gives her so much more than she could ever get from working out in the gym or in her front room.

‘Being in the natural environment – hills or near water – is a place of freedom, adventure and mindfulness, living in the moment,’ Jo tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The water really calms my anxiety – especially sea swimming. I can’t focus on anything else!

‘But simply a walk or hike puts lots of things into perspective. It reminds me the world is going on outside of my own worries. The trees, birds, the waves… life goes on beyond me. Like a moving meditation.

‘I think exercising outdoors is a bit more freeing too. I love that I come home looking a bit bedraggled with salty hair or dirt under my fingernails.

‘There’s no mirrors like in a gym, you just do your thing and feel good and feel very much in the moment. More alive I think.

‘No judgement, no comparison, just me being free and braver.’

Jo loves the water, and says the minute she puts her wetsuit on she gets a tingle of anticipation, she knows she’s going to have fun. .

‘When I was paddleboarding coast to coast, I sometimes caught sight of myself at the end of the day and thought – “that’s me, the essence of me”.

‘I had given it everything I had and felt emboldened. It was like being a little girl again, even though I’m now 55.

‘I sometimes do gym workouts on the beach and that’s fun, using a rock as a kettlebell, or I run up little hills in the woods and dance at the top. I find it joyful and the fresh air clears my head.’

Aneela McKenna is a keen cyclist and guide at Go Where Scotland. She says outdoor activity is a vital part of her life.

‘I’m not sure how I would function if I didn’t get my outdoor fix everyday,’ Aneela tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It’s my way of recharging the batteries, especially when I’ve been working long hours and need to get away from looking at a screen all day.’

Aneela says she doesn’t have to do intense workouts to feels the benefits – even a simple ride can have a hugely positive effect.

‘It could be an easy cycle path, a forest path, or I might climb some hills depending on how much time and energy I have.

‘As long as I get out, even it’s only for 30 minutes, I know it’s good for my mental health, something I need to keep in check everyday.

‘It’s like my daily spoonful of medicine, being outdoors takes away the stress of everyday life.

‘There’s something about being a tiny dot in a wide open space that helps put everything into perspective again. It stops me stressing about trivial matters.’

The common theme here is escapism. Both Jo and Aneela say that being in the great outdoors is their way of taking a break from the stresses of life – and we all need that at the moment.

If you like the sound of this, and fancy a new challenge to mark the end of lockdown, why not sign up for our London 10 Peak Challenge, part of Metro.co.uk’s new charity fundraising campaign – Metro.co.uk Lifeline.

The sponsored 26-mile hike across London will be in support of The Hygiene Bank; an amazing charity that looks after families in desperate need of every day essentials.

So, not only will it offer the opportunity to really push yourself, but also take crucial steps in supporting people affected by poverty along the way. 

The benefits of outdoor exercise

Jo is living prove that exercising outdoors can be invigorating – not just for your body but for your mind as well.

Here are some of the reasons why being active in nature can make you feel so amazing:

Reduces stress

Being physically active outdoors has been shown to reduce anger and depression and improve mood – more than exercising indoors.

Not only do you get those delicious endorphins from moving your body, you also get exposure to vitamin D from being out in the sun, which is important for mood regulation.

It’s free

The best things in life are free – and that is certainly the case when it comes to outdoor exercising.

The UK is full of beautiful nature spots, from rolling hills to mountain ranges, stunning lakes to national parks.

And if you can’t to any of those – look a little closer to home. Any areas of greenery near your house will be perfect. You don’t need much space for a quick HIIT session or some basic yoga.

Improves self-esteem

As little as five minutes of outdoor exercise can improve your self-esteem – which is really important given that almost 40% of women are put of from exercising because of confidence issues and a fear of judgement.

Anywhere outside will have this positive impact, but interestingly, being near greenery or water enhances this effect.

Improves your sleep

Exercising helps you to get a better night’s sleep, but exercising outdoors can boost that effect because fresh air can help to improve the quality of your sleep.

Tips to get into exercising outdoors

The hardest thing can be getting out the door

But once you are out in the fresh air, and doing the thing you love, whether it’s walking, running or cycling, you will have completely forgotten all about that first hurdle and you will tell yourself, ‘well that wasn’t so bad!’

I promise you, it gets easier every time. I keep my kit handy in one place so that takes away some of the stress of getting out.

Be prepared for the weather

In the UK we can experience all four seasons in a day and if you don’t have the right kit, getting caught in bad weather conditions might dampen the spirits. Rain can be fun, believe me!

Check the weather forecast and think about what kit you will need and with that the weather won’t let you down.

Think about the environment

Since we’ve come out of lockdown we’ve seen so much litter scattered over the countryside. I’m afraid there are no bins along the way.

My advice would be not carry no more than you need and take everything you brought in back out with you. You will be doing the planet a favour.

Aneela McKenna, MTB Guide and Coach, Go Where Scotland

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