For exercise, we are always faced with two roads: indoors or outdoors—the gym, say, or Mother Nature. The first is familiar, a path well worn by routine, control, and familiar faces. The latter is foreign: it tends to be a path explored in good weather, to-and-from the car, and when you go on vacation. Even so, nature is unpredictable, more or less. That’s a good thing.
When was the last time you took your gym outside? When was the last time you made the choice to take the road less travelled? In Robert Frosts’ poem, and in your overall fitness, when you take “The Road Not Taken,” it makes a difference. There are many benefits.
In all seasons, outdoor activities tend to be social. Hiking, skiing, garage gyms, cycling, tobogganing, swimming, and even walking are activities we tend to do with others. And when we work out with others, we tend to go for longer and harder than we would on our own. That’s because we are engaged in conversation, the scenery, new sights and smells and sounds, or even just the enthusiasm of our partner, kids or dog that come along.
Daniel Levitin is Professor Emeritus of neuroscience at McGill University and the author of four New York Times best-selling books about the brain. He chimes in on these benefits:
“Social interactions are the most complicated things that we humans do. It requires all kinds of mental operations, empathy, compassion, turn taking, knowing when it’s your turn to talk. You can think of social interactions like the oil for your car engine.”
We tend to narrow our focus at the gym and want to just keep doing the same things we’ve done before: 10×3 on thebench press; 10×3 on the pec deck; ask that guy for a spot; 10×3 on the incline bench; glute bridges; check mascara the mirror; hamstring curls; high-five Susan; calf raises; shower.
It’s important to fight complacency and experience new people, terrain, and environments. Mother Nature adds value to your workout by adding variety: wind, rain, varying terrain like sand, pavement, gravel, and grass. There are objects to climb on or jump over, temperature changes for your body and breath to adapt to, and an endless number of choices of possible avenues to take.
You use new muscles and move in new ways so you get more out of your workout. Mother Nature isn’t a treadmill you can program. She’s the program.
THE BEST TRAVEL COMPANION
Travelling is a great way to explore a new environment. From cycling holidays, your family holiday or a weekend business trip, fresh air is international and it’s free!
When you get outside, you get a feel for your surroundings, see shops, restaurants, parks, and other places you want to return to. It’s a place where you can be spontaneous and enjoy the community. And no one knows you, so you worry less, about what you look like and your level of fitness. You think less about what you are doing. You just do it.
You might even “run” right into a local running group that you could join on your vacation, or you might bond with someone on your cycling holiday. When you put yourself into the world, magic happens.
Doing Sudoku puzzles has one benefit: you get better at Sudoku puzzles. Research shows that it doesn’t transfer to general smarts or memory. The brain benefits from doing new things. By definition, getting outside provides a lot of newness. Even a familiar trail is always changing. This creates new synaptic connections, and that exercise of your brain getting out of your comfort zone is important to aging successfully.
Moreover, movement that involves navigation in the open countryside—or a city if that’s what you’ve got, is more important for memory than aerobic exercise. Navigating and spatial memory work the hippocampus, the seat of memory. All the movement in nature stresses the hippocampus the way a dumbbell stresses a biceps muscle, and it grows. Your memory “didn’t evolve to remember the lyrics to songs. Your memory evolved to help you navigate… Standing on a treadmill doesn’t do that.”
These days with most jobs inside buildings, commuting in vehicles or underground, and then spending an hour inside a gym severely limits exposure to sunlight. The sun regulates your circadian rhythm, telling your body when it’s time to be alert and when it’s time to rest. Without the sunlight, “we don’t get the neurochemical signals for waking and sleeping we need. That means we have to be scrupulous about sleep hygiene.”
One of the simplest ways to do this is to exercise outside. It’s like flossing your teeth to prevent gum disease—an easy
More Insight: You might also enjoy this great article on the health benefits of walking.
Author: Jennifer Graham is a writer in Nova Scotia. She practices the “Lost Arts” of cursive writing, paper mâché, pie-making, letter writing, and acts of everyday kindness. She is a regular contributor to Optimyz and Silver magazines.