Natural High

Natural High

Why getting outside does wonders for your health

Do you find yourself stuck inside, reluctant to emerge from your cocoon? Here’s a reason to force yourself through the door: Older adults who spent just 15 minutes outdoors reported feeling more grateful and more optimistic afterwards, according to a recent study. Other research has found that people who exercise outside enjoy it more and are able to push themselves further than when they work out indoors. 

That’s the case for longtime runner Julia Venetis, who uses the treadmill for some workouts but prefers to exercise outside. “There’s something about running outside in the fresh air. It just makes me feel like I can leave the messy parts of life behind me as I move forward with each step,” says the Downers Grove resident. “My body feels stronger. My mind is clearer. I end my workout with a sense of peace that I didn’t have when I started.” 

Here’s a closer look at why the great outdoors is also great for overall health. 

We’re wired to be outside 

Studies show that focusing on the sensory experience of spending time in nature improves immunity, lowers stress markers like blood pressure and heart rate, and improves mood.

“Being in nature is very calming and relaxing, and anything like that is very good for our physiological makeup and our circulation,” says R. Kannan Mutharasan, MD, cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital and co-program director for the sports cardiology program. 

“When we think about relaxation, we think about the autonomic nervous system,” Mutharasan says. “When we relax and spend time in nature, we’re kind of tamping down the sympathetic nervous system, which puts us on edge, and ramping up our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps slow down the heart rate and fosters heart rate variability.”

Outdoors exercise = more benefits 

While exercise anywhere has many benefits, exercising outdoors can have a bigger impact than an indoor gym workout. “The reason why probably has two parts: It’s inherently relaxing, and if you feel good, you’re going to want to do more,” Mutharasan says.  

Exercising outside feels easier as well. Your perceived exertion — or how hard you feel like you’re working while exercising — is lower when you work out outside versus indoors. “Our perceived limits and perceived discomfort depend on many things,” Mutharasan says. “If you’re outside and you’re comfortable, you can do more. The exercise doesn’t feel like as much work.”  

Exercising outdoors also typically involves using your entire body as opposed to narrowly targeting specific muscle groups the way you might in a gym. 

“Outdoor exercise helps you strengthen the muscles that provide support [to your entire body] and gain overall strength,” says Kevin Baidoo, MD, sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine. “Being outside is an awesome way to work out our muscles and our cardiovascular system and challenge ourselves in mental and physical ways.”

Boost your mood and outlook 

Working out in the fresh air can provide a mental health boost as well. “Studies show that exercising outside can help improve overall self-esteem and that being outdoors can help reduce anger, improve mood, and address some of the depression that people have. It’s a way to help address some of these issues without having to use medication,” Baidoo says. People with seasonal affective disorder are particularly likely to benefit from more exposure to outdoor sunlight, he adds. 

And the outdoors is open to everyone — without membership fees. “There’s a low cost associated with getting outside,” Baidoo says. “Gym[s] can be super-expensive, but it’s easy to go out and get the type of exercise we’re talking about, and being outside can really spark a sense of community.”  

Whether it’s a biking group, an outdoor tai chi class, or simply walking with a friend, exercising outside “fosters that human connection we have lost in the last couple of years,” Baidoo says. 

Sounds like the perfect time to lace up your sneakers, and head for the great outdoors.

Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue.