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Outdoor exercise amplifies physical and mental health benefits

Regular exercise is well-known for its multitude of health benefits – ranging from preventing chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and osteoporosis to enhancing immune function, pain control, and life expectancy.

Mental health also significantly improves with exercise. The benefits include better mood, reduced anxiety, and a lower risk of dementia and depression.

Despite these well-documented advantages, over 75% of adults in the United States fail to meet the recommended 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75-150 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, highlighted the value of outdoor exercise, with parks and trails becoming essential venues for physical activity.

Not only do these natural settings provide the same physical and mental health benefits as exercise, but they may also amplify these effects.

Exploring the benefits of exercising in nature

A recent study led by Jay Maddock, a professor in the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University, and Howard Frumkin, Senior Vice President at the Land and People Lab, delved into the additive benefits of exercising in natural settings.

The experts examined factors that influence park visitation, the extent of physical activity in these settings, and the subsequent health benefits.

The findings suggest that exercising in natural environments, such as parks, offers greater benefits compared to indoor exercise, although the long-term effects remain uncertain.

“Despite this, the research is clear that natural settings could be an effective venue for promoting physical activity,” noted Maddock. “People generally enjoy being outdoors, with parks, trails, and community gardens being the most popular venues.”

The appeal of outdoor exercise venues

Several factors enhance the attractiveness of outdoor venues. Physical features like community centers, playgrounds, lighting, and clear signage, along with well-maintained natural features such as tree canopies and bodies of water, make these spaces more appealing.

In addition, activities like classes and festivals, a welcoming environment, perceived safety, and a sense of connectedness to nature contribute to the popularity of outdoor venues.

“Parks and trails are particularly important due to their accessibility and widespread availability, but access varies significantly by geography,” noted Maddock. “For instance, nearly 98% of Illinois residents live within half a mile of a park, compared to only 29% in Mississippi.”

Demographic disparities in park usage

The study also highlights demographic disparities in park usage. Men are more likely than women to use these natural spaces for exercise.

In Los Angeles, black adults are less likely than white adults to engage in park activities, while English-speaking Latinos are equally likely, and Asian/Pacific Islanders are more likely to use these spaces.

“Some groups – Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, along with immigrant and refugee populations – often face historical or ongoing discrimination that hinders their use of natural spaces, and they routinely have less access to high-quality parks,” said Frumkin.

“Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities also encounter challenges in accessing natural spaces. Ensuring these areas are safe, navigable, and appropriately programmed could increase their use.”

Strategies for health professionals

Maddock and Frumkin propose four strategies for health professionals to encourage the use of parks and natural settings:

  1. Prescribing Nature Contact: Health professionals can recommend that patients spend more time in natural settings, known as nature prescriptions or “ParkRx.” Although more research is needed, existing studies suggest this approach is effective.
  2. Modeling Behavior: Health professionals can engage in outdoor activities themselves, setting a positive example for their patients while enhancing their own well-being.
  3. Community Engagement: Health professionals can participate in community efforts that promote the use of outdoor spaces, such as Houston’s Be Well Communities initiative, supported by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
  4. Funding and Maintenance: Health professionals can help create and maintain parks and greenspaces by directing funds through Community Health Needs Assessments, Medicaid funds, and health care conversion foundations.

Promoting health through exercise and nature

“It is clear that the use of parks and natural settings for physical activities could be a potentially powerful tool for promoting two important health behaviors simultaneously,” said Maddock.

“This is especially crucial given that the majority of Americans do not get enough exercise or spend enough time outdoors.”

By understanding and promoting the combined benefits of exercise and nature, health professionals can play a pivotal role in enhancing public health and well-being.

The study is published in the journal American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.


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