Having an unhealthy relationship with exercise can take a mental toll, as well as a physical one. Sometimes the effects of unhealthy exercise aren’t physical, but rather the emotional burden of engaging with an activity that’s stressful, triggers trauma reactions, or brings up intense negative feelings. The benefits of healthy exercise are well known. But did you know that there are added benefits if you do outdoor exercise, if you participate in outdoor fitness?
If you notice a few or more of these signs, I’d encourage you to reach out to a dietitian or therapist experienced in disordered eating, or call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline. That said, you don’t have to experience physical symptoms of overexercise for exercise to be a problem in your life. If you feel like your relationship with exercise is causing stress in your life, you deserve support. Do not miss reading
What is Healthy Exercise?
Healthy exercise, or movement as I like to call it, looks different for everyone – kinda like healthy eating! There are many factors that influence what healthy exercise could be for someone, including physical abilities or disabilities, time, finances, personal preferences, age, environment, goals and so on. As I mentioned earlier, everyone has their own unique relationship with exercise, so there are not cut and dry rules here.
Healthy exercise can be structured or unstructured, or a combination of both. Healthy exercise might involve getting your heart rate up on occasion, as there are benefits to building cardiorespiratory fitness, but also doing slower, more restorative movement, like yoga or walking. Healthy exercise might involve doing some weight-bearing exercises, as it helps protect bone health as you get older, but that doesn’t necessarily mean going to a gym to lift weights with all the gym bros. Healthy exercise also varies based on seasons of life, and that’s OK.
When we work with clients on building a healthier relationship with movement, we focus on building a more intuitive relationship with it. That involves listening to both your body and brain to decide what, if any, exercise sounds good to you.
Recently, researchers at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry have undertaken a systematic review of numerous studies, which compared the effects of outdoor exercise initiatives with the effects of those exercise initiatives which were conducted indoors. Reported in the Science Daily (and retrieved on 6 February 2011), the study’s clear conclusion is that there are both mental and physical benefits to our well-being, which are gained by doing healthy exercise in the natural environment.
In relation to our mental well-being, most of the studies reviewed found that exercising in the natural environment, as compared to exercising indoors, was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement, as well as decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Interestingly, study participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor exercise compared with indoor exercise activity, and they stated that they were more likely to repeat outdoor fitness activity in the future.
Unfortunately, none of the studies forming part of the healthy exercise review measured the effects of outdoor physical activity on physical well-being compared to indoor exercise, or the effect of natural environments on adhering to an exercise regime. As a result, it is thought that the benefits to our physical well-being which the researchers claim, more likely are associated with the mind-body connection. As we say: healthy mind, healthy body. Clearly further research is needed to better understand the link between mental and physical well-being and outdoor exercise.
Nonetheless, for people who live most of their lives inside four walls or in urban environments, the results speak for themselves. Exercising outdoors appears more beneficial to your mental health, especially if you suffer from a mental illness, like depression. A caveat to that, however, must be that if you exercise in a highly polluted outdoor environment, where you will be inhaling toxic fumes while you exercise, your physical well-being may be adversely affected. Perhaps important and overlooked in the review of healthy exercise is the fact that when you are participating in daytime outdoor fitness, you are getting vitamin D through sunlight exposure, which itself contributes to physical and mental well-being.
Another factor which might be interesting to explore and which is not mentioned is the effect of outdoor exercise involving other people. Participating in social interaction is known to have beneficial effects on how long we live and to improve our mental state. So studying the impact on well-being of undertaking outdoor exercise on your own, compared to exercising and playing as part of a team for outdoor fitness might be instructive.
Even deeper insight could be gained if the focus of any study included a comparison between the impact on well-being of doing exercise indoors on your own, to doing indoor exercise as part of a team. It well may be that different strokes for different folks is revealed, with the level of well-being experienced somewhat dependent on personality. For instance, introverted people may prefer any fitness activity on their own.
Whether you exercise indoors or out, regular healthy exercise is good for our physical fitness and well-being. Now it is confirmed that outdoor exercise significantly boosts mental well-being. Perhaps this will spur local governments into action to provide their communities with suitable resources and programmes which benefit their constituents, including open green spaces, fitness equipment and clean air.