How to De-stress: Take Your Exercise Outside

Studies show that exercising outside is much more effective at improving wellbeing than exercising indoors.

Being in nature, or at least being able to see it, is known to help improve wellbeing.

© Martinmark |

Most days, I work out in my garage, doing circuit-training exercises. But when the weather is just right and the sun seems to be beckoning me outside, I often opt out of my usual routine and head to the nearby park instead. While I may not get as much of a cardio workout as I do in my garage, a big, long walk surrounded by nature gives me ample exercise for the day and has the added bonus of doing wonders for my mood and stress level.

Being in nature, or at least being able to see it, is known to help improve wellbeing. Likewise, physical exercise is important for managing stress and improving mood.[1] But if you really want to know how to destress effectively, you are best off combining the two, getting in your daily exercise with a dose of nature; studies show that exercising outside is much more effective at improving wellbeing than exercising indoors.

Exercise outside is better than exercise inside

Choosing to exercise outside, rather than inside, has some significant benefits, particularly for your mental and emotional health. You are also more likely to exercise more, and harder, if you go outside. The benefits of exercising outside include:

1. Improve wellbeing and reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. Several studies have linked greater emotional wellbeing to outdoor physical activity.[1] Some of the findings of the numerous studies on the subject suggest that outdoor exercise is related to:

  • Better mood [2]
  • Lower levels of stress and tension [3,4]
  • Reduced negative emotions like anger, sadness, and confusion [3,5]
  • Lower levels of depression and anxiety [6]
  • Higher tranquility, revitalization, and energy levels [3,6]
  • Improved self-esteem [2]
  • Better sleep quality [1]

If you are already battling with a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, the benefits of exercising outside are even greater. Studies show that people with mental illnesses show the greatest changes in markers of wellbeing, like self-esteem.[2]

2. Raise your activity level. In a 12-week study, postmenopausal women experienced higher levels of physical activity when they were assigned to an outdoor training routine compared to an indoor training routine.[6] In a survey study on over 11,000 people, participants who exercised regularly both indoors and outdoors had significantly higher overall physical activity levels than people who only exercised indoors.[4]

3. Enjoy your workout more. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise: if you exercise outside, you are more likely to enjoy it. People tend to experience greater joy and satisfaction with their workout when they are doing an outdoor physical activity compared to an indoor one.[3]

4. Stick to your exercise regime better. If you enjoy your workout, you also are more likely to do it again. People assigned to outdoor training programs adhere better to the regime than those assigned to indoor training,[6] and people tend to report that they are more inclined to repeat an activity they did outside compared to one they did inside.[3]

5. Exercise harder without feeling more exerted. Maybe its because you are distracted by the natural beauty around you. Or perhaps you tend to be happier when you are outside. Whatever the reason, people tend to work out harder when they are outside compared to inside. For example, cyclists were asked to do an identical workout, except some did it inside and some did it outside. The cyclists who rode outside showed 30% higher power output than those cycling inside. What’s more, there was no difference between the two groups in perceived exertion levels, meaning that you might be able to give your body a harder workout without even realizing it.[7]

The more natural the environment, the better

I am fortunate to live just five minutes away from a large, beautiful park, with hundreds of acres to explore of woods, fields, a small lake, and a view of Mount Rainier from the top of the hills. Studies show that the more natural your exercise environment is, the greater the benefit. One study found that the presence of water led to even greater beneficial effects on mood,[2] and another suggested that the more natural the environment is perceived to be, the greater improvements in wellbeing.[8]

So wherever you live, find the most natural environment you can near you. Look for places with trees, views of natural landscapes, or water. And if you can’t find that, remember that any outside activity is better than none, even if it is in an urban environment, and even if it isn’t that long. Even short bouts of physical exercise outside can have substantial benefit on your mental health. Researchers found that just five minutes of exercise in nature improved mood and self-esteem in study participants.[2] So if you want to know how to destress quickly, try taking a quick, restorative walk around the block.

Don’t forget the benefits of vitamin D

Getting outside in the sun each day, whether you are exercising or not, is important for maintaining optimum vitamin D levels. Vitamin D can help you to live longer, survive cancer, fight fatigue, and more.

Share your experience

Do you usually exercise outside or inside? Which do you like better, and why? Share your other tips for how to destress in the comments section below.

[1] Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2014 Nov;6(3):324-46.

[2] Environ Sci Technol. 2010 May 15;44(10):3947-55.

[3] Environ Sci Technol. 2011 Mar 1;45(5):1761-72.

[4] J Phys Act Health. 2014 Nov;11(8):1503-11.

[5] BMC Public Health. 2010 Aug 4;10:456.

[6] Menopause. 2014 Nov 24. [Epub ahead of print]

[7] J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Aug;28(8):2324-9.

[8] Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014 Dec 23;12(1):106-30.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

View all posts by UHN Staff

Comments Comments Policy

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Login Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.