To be sure, exercising outdoors during the winter months in many parts of the country is not easy. Snow, sleet and rain, combined with lower winter temperatures, make it difficult if not impossible to work out in a natural environment, but if you can, you should because it’s much better for you in the long run if you do.
“While the allure of the gym – climate-controlled, convenient and predictable – is obvious, especially in winter, emerging science suggests there are benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated on a treadmill, a recumbent bicycle or a track,” says The New York Times‘ Health Blog.
Running outside is much better for your fitness levels. For one thing, you don’t run the same inside, on a treadmill, as you do outside, on the ground. Your stride is different, your speed tends to be different (which is to say you tend to run more slowly on a treadmill) so your calorie burn and overall endurance levels take a hit.
When you run outdoors, you flex your ankles differently – you have to, because the contour of the terrain is varied, whereas on a treadmill, if you don’t increase the angle, it’s the same. Also, when running outside, you can often find yourself running downhill, “a movement that isn’t easily done on a treadmill and that stresses muscles differently than running on flat or uphill terrain,” the Times said.
And again, studies by the National Institutes of Health found that when running on a treadmill, you expend less energy to go the same distance than if you were running outside. (Tip: If you have to run indoors on a treadmill, bump up the incline to one percent; the NIH says that level more closely resembles running outside).
Cycling outdoors is also more of a workout. Riding a cycling machine in a gym, even if you crank up the resistance, is just not the same as riding a real bike along a real trail that has its ups and downs, for many of the same reasons running outside is better than running on a treadmill, experts say.
According to the NIH, while “the difference between road and laboratory cycling speeds was found to be minimal for small individuals…larger riders would appear to benefit from the fixed resistance in the laboratory compared with the progressively increasing drag due to increased body size that would be experienced in the field.”
The larger your body mass, the more wind resistance and, of course, the tougher the ride (which is a good thing if you’re trying to achieve fitness and endurance).
You just feel better when you’re exercising outdoors. Researchers have shown that those who work out in nature not only achieve better results physically but a) tend to stick with their workout regimen longer; and b) have much better mental fitness and endurance as well.
Volunteers for a number of recent exercise studies were asked to go for two walks for the same amount of time or distance; one inside on a treadmill and the other outside. “In virtually all of the studies,” the Times reported, “the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more and, on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside.”
If you work out in natural surroundings, you’ll stick with it longer. Several studies have shown that part of the reason why you become more fit if you exercise outside is because shunning the confines of a temperature-and-environment-controlled gym will make you stick with working out longer, and that you will want to exercise more often.
“It’s still a lot of speculation at this point, but if you’re having trouble sticking to an exercise routine it might be worthwhile to move those activities outdoors,” writes Thorin Klososki at the health blog LifeHacker.com.
J. D. Heyes
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