The benefits of exercise have been well touted: weight loss, endorphin release, cardiovascular fitness to name a few. One factor that can affect the results of your workout is one few people consider: where to exercise. The place to get the most out of your fitness routine is simply to exercise outdoors.
One of the greatest benefits to exercising outdoors comes from the sun. For one thing, exposure to the sun can help prevent and alleviate depression, particularly Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Both can cause fatigue, anxiety, lack of energy, social withdrawal, physical pain and difficulty concentrating. Although the connection between sunlight and depressive disorders is unclear, some researchers theorize that the sun affects the serotonin levels in the brain. An imbalance of serotonin, in turn, affects neurotransmitters which are thought to cause mood disorders. Exercise in itself increases endorphins, chemicals that have an analgesic affect as well as create feelings of well-being, perhaps even euphoria. Physical and mental pain can both be lessened with exercise and sunlight. Exercising outdoors, therefore, helps the body fight off feelings of depression doubly well.
The sun’s properties
An even more impressive benefit from outdoor exercise comes from the vitamin D absorbed from sunlight. Massive doses of vitamin D have been studied regarding the vitamin’s effect on depression, and indications are that high levels may help. Besides the light itself, the vitamin D from the sun also helps regulate the production of the brain hormone serotonin.
But the physical benefits from vitamin D are even more powerful. Studies suggest that vitamin D can prevent a number of different ailments including diabetes, high blood pressure, and even multiple sclerosis.
Similarly, exercise can increase bone density, but so can being outdoors. Bones are healthier with regular vitamin D intake since the vitamin aids in the absorption of calcium. Stronger bones help prevent osteoporosis in later years.
Menopause is another issue women face in later years, and outdoor exercise can ameliorate some of its symptoms. Just a 20-minute walk outdoors in the sunlight stimulates the pituitary into creating additional hormones that increase estrogen. Estrogen is a major factor in easing the symptoms of menopause.
Vitamin D may even affect the risks of getting cancer. Research shows that the nutrient affects cell growth, which may allow it to inhibit the start or spread of cancer. Dr. William Grant and his colleagues have presented a paper claiming that sufficient intake of vitamin D would prevent 50,000 – 65,000 deaths from cancer annually.
Negative effects of sun
We have all heard of the issues that can be caused by sun exposure. Cancer is the most common concern, and it is true that people die from skin cancer every year. However, melanoma is blamed for 8,000 deaths and other skin cancers for another 2,000. These numbers may sound significant, but they pale when paired with the 50,000+ deaths from cancer that could be avoided by more outdoor exercise.
If you absolutely can’t exercise outdoors for some reason, redirecting the sunlight through a window to your exercise area can help. Phototherapy lights often used to treat SAD give many of the benefits of pure sunlight. Vitamin D supplements can make up some of the differences, as well.
But the amount of indoor intake may be prohibitive. For instance, if you totally avoid the sun, you would need to have the equivalent of 40 glasses of milk each day in order to get the necessary nutrients.
Direct sunlight isn’t the only way to benefit while exercising outside, either. Partial sun or even full clouds still allow enough of the sun’s rays to increase levels of vitamin D, particularly if you are exercising.
Although it may seem less inviting, cold days may be the best kinds of days to exercise outdoors. Besides the other benefits, there is evidence that cold air stimulates the adrenal glands. Adrenals running at full function help reduce signs of depression and also help the body get rid of fat faster.
All exercise is not equal
The best exercise is exercise you do consistently. But an outdoor workout has many more benefits for weight loss and other aspects of overall health. Gradual exposure to the sun as you develop an outdoor exercise plan will help you create a long-lasting routine that no other activity can match in benefit.
William Grant, PhD, et al. “Health and economic benefits from sun exposure are much greater than risks: study.” Medicalnewstoday.com.Lisa Mercer. “Winter Fitness Benefits.” Examiner.com.