What are the benefits of outdoor exercise?

There are many benefits of outdoor exercise, from stress reduction to burning calories and better sleep

Group of four people exercising outside
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether you are exploring a new city on foot or mountain biking in the woods, there are a lot of benefits of outdoor exercise, whether you enjoy a short walk, outdoor run, or longer hike. 

For instance, hiking in the mountains using the best trekking poles will do wonders for your physical and mental health, helping you to unwind while improving your fitness. 

And researchers are finding that many studies have demonstrated that green exercise in the presence of nature improves mental health leading to positive short and long-term health outcomes.

A multi-study analysis in Environmental Science and Technology found exercising in nature can lead to a rise in self-esteem, particularly for young people and those with mental illness, along with an increase in mood. And being around water had an even more significant effect. 

We spoke to sports scientist and well-being performance coach Saara Haapanen to find out how outdoor exercise benefits our body and mind and why it pays to spend some time outside each day. 

Headshot of Saara Haapanen
Saara Haapanen

Saara Haapanen is a sports scientist and performance coach at Performance is Haapanen. She has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and Health Promotion, a Master of Science in Sport and Exercise Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Sports and Exercise Psychology.

She is a former Olympic squad alternate for diving and has coached and trained international divers. She was an appointed member of the Colorado Governors Council for Active and Healthy Lifestyles for two terms helping to make Colorado one of the healthiest states in the nation.

1. Reduces stress

Several studies have shown that exercising outdoors can positively impact your overall well-being, including increasing your self-esteem and reducing stress and anxiety. 

Lower levels of heart rate, blood pressure, and reduced stress were found in those moving outdoors in a 2018 systematic review published in the journal Health Place. The researchers analyzed nature viewing, outdoor walks, outdoor exercise, and gardening.

They found "convincing evidence" that spending time in outdoor environments, particularly those with green space, reduced the experience of stress and ultimately improved health. If you can't make it outside and need a quick fix, there are other ways to reduce stress. 

Learning how to meditate can have a similar effect by focusing your attention on your body, allowing thoughts to come and go, and developing a connection between your mind and body. If sitting still doesn't sound like your thing, you could take a mindful walk

2. Improves your mood

Exercise and time in nature are known separately to positively affect your mental health. But a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research measured the impact of both. Participants in the research ran on a treadmill while several outdoor scenes were projected on the wall.

The researchers found exercise alone significantly reduced blood pressure and increased self-esteem and mood. But when participants were shown pleasant rural and urban scenes, their self-esteem improved even further.

Another study published in Perspectives in Public Health compared the mental health benefits of exercising in different environments, including the beach and by riversides. The team found improved self-esteem and confidence, lower stress, and improved mood. 

3. Burns more calories

Research has suggested that exercising outdoors may provide additional physiological benefits, such as improved cardiovascular fitness, improved immune function, and engaging all five senses, which helps to stimulate the brain and increase vitamin D and serotonin levels.  

"It has actually been shown that you can burn up to 10% more calories walking or running outside when compared to the same speed on a treadmill. This may be because the treadmill "pulls" you along, and outside, you have to pick up your foot more," says Haapanen.  

If it's colder outside, thermogenesis (the energy dissipation through heat) can increase up to 30 percent. "This means you'll spike your metabolism and burn more calories if it's colder outside," added Haapanen.

4. You'll exercise for longer

Most people spend the majority of the working day inside, glued to a screen. "Endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine are not flowing when you are sitting in front of a computer," said Haapanen.

Getting outside is a great motivator and can impact our commitment to exercise. "Exercising in natural environments may be more enjoyable than exercising indoors, which can help to increase adherence to physical activity. 

Studies seem to show that many tend to exercise for longer periods of time when outdoors compared to indoors," said Haapanen. So, you'll have plenty of time to take on a park workout to build strength and burn fat. 

5. Improves your sleep

Although there are limited studies on the link between outdoor activity and sleep health, one study from 2017, published in PLoS One, had some interesting findings and could change when you choose to exercise. 

The team found that exercising outside in the morning helped improve your sleep efficiency more than from afternoon workouts. The study's results also showed that women who spent less time outside had less sleep overall. 

But the researchers also found that afternoon exercisers had poorer sleep efficiency, so their sleep quality was worse than the morning exercisers. So, if you struggle to get up first thing, it might be worth investing in a sunrise alarm clock and clearing some space in your schedule. 

"Sun and more fresh air can help humans with sleep and overall well-being, and those that exercise tend to do so for a longer period of time, so overall, I would personally recommend to get outside when you can," added Haapanen.   

Lily Canter

Lily Canter is a freelance money, health and lifestyle journalist with more than 20 years' experience. She writes about fitness for Runner's World and Trail Running magazines and focuses on personal finance for Yahoo! Finance UK, Metro, The Guardian, and the Mail on Sunday. In her spare time she is an ultra-runner, canicrosser and running coach. She also co-hosts the award-winning podcast Freelancing for Journalists.