To celebrate HER Outdoors Week, in this week’s article, we give you an insight into the many benefits of getting outdoors—including some that may surprise you.
I like living in the year 2023, don’t you? It’s nice to be able to hop on a plane and step off on the other side of the world in about a day or so, and not have to worry about death when we get an infection (thanks, antibiotics!). But, modernity brings with it some significant issues. One major issue is the massive reduction in physical activity we have experienced relative to our not-too-distant ancestors. Another is the vast amount of lush, natural ecosystems that have been converted to farmland or (concrete) urban areas, as a result of the explosion of agriculture and subsequent industrial revolution. Despite these challenges, it’s still possible to get out into nature and be active in our modern societies. In fact, it's more important now than ever before.
Poster for HER Outdoors Week 2021. Source: Athletics Ireland
Health Implications of Physical Inactivity
Okay, so we all know that being physically inactive is not good for us, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time spelling it out. In brief, for the majority of our species’ existence, we have been highly active hunter-gatherers (1). And, because we are no longer as active as we evolved to be, this causes health issues (1). Specifically, prolonged periods of physical inactivity has adverse effects on our fitness, muscle health, and cognitive ability, and is associated with an increased risk of death from any cause and from cardiovascular disease (2). But fret not: one effective strategy to reduce our risk of these health conditions is to get outdoors and be active!
Benefits of Getting Outdoors
Getting outdoors is a great way to keep physically active. Of course, you don’t need to get outdoors to be active, but there’s something nice about getting out into the fresh air (particularly after a day in school or at work). In the summer, the warmer temperatures and sunshine offer added benefits to exercising outdoors—making it more tolerable (and fun!) and ensuring we get vitamin D (which we make when the sun rays hit our skin). With that said, make sure to wear sun protection year-round to reduce the risk of skin damage and skin cancer (broad spectrum SPF 50 is best).
Many sports and activities take place outdoors, and this offers a way to both improve your fitness and expand your social circle. It’s also a good excuse to meet up with friends, who we don’t see as often as we would like in our fast-paced, modern lives. For example, why not organise to go on a hike this weekend? Remember: when it comes to improving physical activity, you don’t have to do anything too strenuous. Even a short walk in your local park is a good way to get outside and be active. In fact, a recent analysis of 17 large cohort studies reported a 15% reduced risk of death from any cause per 1,000-step increase per day (and a 7% reduction in risk of death from cardiovascular disease per 500-step increase per day) (3).
Image from Parkrun. Parkrun is a volunteer-led organisation that hosts a 5k walk/run in local parks all over Ireland (and across the globe) every Saturday morning at 9:30 am. Why not take part? Source: Parkrun
Getting out into nature also may offer some surprising benefits for mental health. Specifically, some studies have found that when people exercise in nature-rich, so-called ‘green spaces’ or ‘blue spaces’, compared to urban areas, they experience greater well-being and mood (4). This highlights the fact that there may be further benefits to getting out into nature, specifically, and not just outdoors. A former Professor of mine, Pat Wall, would call this a ‘mental shampoo’ which as a term, if you picture the tranquillity of walking through a dense forest or on the beach, does a good job of capturing the mental health benefits up for grabs from being out in nature.
Getting out into nature may offer mental health benefits. Source: Booboone
If you have been meaning to become more active, this is your wake-up call! Call your friends, get outside, and do something fun. And, because it’s HER Outdoors Week until this Sunday (August 20, 2023), start this weekend!
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Thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) O'Keefe JH, Vogel R, Lavie CJ, Cordain L. Exercise like a hunter-gatherer: a prescription for organic physical fitness. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2011;53(6):471–9. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0033062011000648
(2) Bowden Davies KA, Pickles S, Sprung VS, Kemp GJ, Alam U, Moore DR, Tahrani AA, Cuthbertson DJ. Reduced physical activity in young and older adults: metabolic and musculoskeletal implications. Ther Adv Endocrinol Metab. 2019;10:2042018819888824. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6878603/
(3) Banach M, Lewek J, Surma S, et al. The association between daily step count and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: a meta-analysis [published online ahead of print, 2023 Aug 9]. Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2023;zwad229. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/eurjpc/advance-article/doi/10.1093/eurjpc/zwad229/7226309
(4) Marini S, Mauro M, Grigoletto A, Toselli S, Maietta Latessa P. The Effect of Physical Activity Interventions Carried Out in Outdoor Natural Blue and Green Spaces on Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(19):12482. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9566520/
Cohort study: Also known as a prospective or longitudinal cohort study, these are a type of study where researchers recruit a large group of people and measure a number of their characteristics, e.g., their demographics (e.g., age, sex, weight, height, education level, etc.), their habitual diet, and any other information the researchers are interested in (e.g., their general health). Then, the researchers track these people for a number of years, where they eventually re-screen them to again ask them for the information they collected at the start of the study (baseline), and sometimes for further information. This allows for the researchers to analyse the data to uncover important trends and relationships between exposures (e.g., diet) and outcomes (e.g., death) over the time period (e.g., 10 years). One of the first large-scale cohort studies—theFramingham Heart Study,—led to the emergence of what we now call ‘risk factors’ for cardiovascular disease, i.e., high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, etc. Thus, cohort studies are a very important piece of research for understanding how lifestyle exposures like smoking, diet, and physical activity relate to health and disease risk. Note: cohort studies can also be retrospective in nature, where researchers compare a group of individuals that share a common exposure (e.g., smokers) with another group of similar individuals not exposed to that exposure (e.g., non-smokers), to determine the influence of the exposure (e.g., smoking) on the incidence of a condition such as disease or death.