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7 health benefits of outdoor exercise

ShaNay Norvell, a certified fitness instructor who leads classes at Cancer Wellness, shares seven reasons to take your workout outdoors.

“If you’re going through cancer treatment, getting outdoors can be part of the healing process,” says Norvell. “Even if you can only get outside five to 10 minutes a day, that’s great! Everyone can use some fresh air and sunshine.”

Here are some top benefits of exercising alfresco:

  1. It’s a natural antidepressant. Outdoor exercise can help ward off seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression and anxiety because sunshine naturally increases serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood. And exercise itself produces endorphins, another feel-good hormone that boosts your mood and reduces pain.

  2. It challenges your body. “When exercising on ever-changing outdoor terrain, your body is more challenged than when it is working out on a flat indoor surface,” explains Norvell.

  3. You may be more likely to stick with it. “I take many of my individual clients and classes outdoors,” says Norvell. “They often tell me it doesn’t feel like as much of a workout as running on the treadmill, even though they are still getting a great calorie burn.”

  4. It provides mental relief. “Many people feel a lot of tension about working out, losing weight and lowering their blood pressure,” she explains. “Outdoor exercise is enjoyable and feels more like play than a chore.”

  5. You can turn it into a social outing. “Exercise can become a lot more fun if you involve family and friends,” she says. Instead of meeting a friend for lunch or coffee, consider going for a walk. Or take your family out for a walk together instead of watching TV after dinner.

  6. It’s free. All you need to get a fantastic workout is a safe, well-lit park, track, neighborhood or walking trail, and your bodyweight. No gym membership required.

  7. It can be a team-building experience. “There are many recreational sports leagues for adults, such as kickball or softball,” says Norvell. “I encourage adults to do it, even if you’re not an athlete. Joining a team can help you stay consistent with exercise and it can bring back those feelings you had as a kid playing outside—and unlike high school, no athletic ability is required.”

What you’ll need to get started with outdoor exercise

You’ll need the following supplies:

  • Sun protection. “Some cancer treatments can increase your light sensitivity, so be sure to wear SPF, sunglasses and a hat, no matter your skin tone,” she says. “If you ever start feeling queasy, seek shade right away.”

  • Supportive walking or running shoes. Good shoes protect the entire body from injury.

  • Water. A good rule of thumb: Sip 4 to 6 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes you’re outside.

Outdoor cardio routine

Walking outdoors is a great cardiovascular workout, especially if you’re new to exercise. Here’s how to get started:

  • Determine your distance and route, such as two laps around the track at your local park each Sunday.

  • Increase your speed. Each week, time yourself and try to walk your lap faster than you did the week before.

  • Increase your distance. Once you’ve bumped up your speed, add another lap to your routine to walk a longer distance.

  • Add some intervals. If you’re looking for more intensity after a few weeks or you’re short on time, add a few jogging intervals to burn more calories and increase your heart rate. Try jogging for one minute, then walking for two minutes. Repeat this cycle during your allotted workout time.

  • Add some strength training moves. For example, after 20 minutes of walking, stop and do 20 squats.

Outdoor strength training routine

Bodyweight exercises increase your strength and muscle tone, which helps protect your joints, ligaments and bones. Try this 20-minute circuit from Norvell:

  • Warm-up: March in place or walk for three to five minutes.

  • Dynamic stretching: This type of stretching uses movement to activate and warm up the muscles. Avoid holding or bouncing your stretches before the body is warmed up. “This is like pulling on a frozen rubber band — it’ll snap easily,” she says. Instead, try 20 knee hugs on each side or knee circles to lubricate your joints.

  • Squats: Perform 20 squats. If you can’t do a full squat, try sitting down on a park bench, then standing up 20 times.

  • Push-ups: Perform 10 to 12 pushups with your knees on or off the ground.

  • Triceps dips: Using a park bench, do 10 to 12 dips to work the back of your arms.

  • Front leg raises: Alternate lifting one leg straight in front of you to work your abdominal muscles without having to lie down on the ground. Do 10 to 12 raises on each side. Use a bench or tree for support if needed.

  • Starting again with squats, repeat this sequence five more times or for a total of 20 minutes.

  • Add a cool-down lap around the park or neighborhood.

  • Gently stretch each muscle group. Check out these stretching routines for a quick tutorial.

“Outdoor exercise is so beneficial because it gives you a lot of variety, sunshine and stress relief, helping you feel great,” says Norvell.

For more fitness tips, check out our Movement page.

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