While the charm of the gym, with its climate control and other benefits, is particularly in winter, researchers now say that running outside as opposed to in a gym offers more benefits. The lower legs flex more, and while treadmills have slope settings, it isn’t quite the same as running up or down a hill on outdoor terrain. Outside exercise also is typically more arduous than the indoor form. For example, treadmill runners use less energy to cover a similar distance since they don’t have to deal with wind, weather, or terrain changes.
Cycling had similar results. Wind drag can require more energy when cycling 25 miles outdoors versus the similar amount of miles on a stationary bike. If you have a limited amount of time and want to get the most impact for our exercise, consider an outdoor option over an indoor one.
But the benefits to outdoor exercise don’t end there. In other research, volunteers were asked to take a walk for a certain amount of time. One group walked on a treadmill or around a track while the other group walked outside. The volunteers reported a higher benefit from the outdoor exercise and testing revealed that they scored fundamentally higher on measures of well-being, energy, happiness, and confidence and lower on stress, depression, and fatigue.
While these studies might have limited scope, we can draw the conclusion that there are more benefits to outdoor exercise than we might have realized previously. Another research study found that adults who exercise outdoors do so longer and more frequently than those who exercise indoors. The researchers asked 66 people about their average activity and then fitted them with electronic devices to track their movement for 7 days. Those who enjoyed outdoor exercise did so 30 minutes more often every week than those who chose indoor options.
While studies haven’t yet explained this phenomenon, outdoor fitness may improve mood and be more motivating than an indoor program. Some research has noted that outdoor workouts correlate with lower levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. The hypothesis is that sun exposure, known to elevate mood, could be at work.
Jacqueline Kerr, a professor at the University of California in San Diego, observed that outdoor movement leads to more activity. However, she pointed out that even though we are seeing this trend, the public hasn’t yet embraced it. Opening more gyms won’t meet this apparent need.