Gyms are sprouting everywhere. Whether you want to lose weight, look curvy, tone up muscles or just for leisure; outdoor physical activities offer more health benefits that indoor gyms.
Sample this; pilots and airplane engineers claim that they recover from jetlag more rapidly when they exercise outdoors than indoors.
Walking, running or engaging in outdoor activity increases feeling of calmness and helps one to escape from the cares of life.
In fact, outdoor walking to and from the forest to fetch firewood, walking or running while looking after cattle and similar outdoor activities are credited for burning calories and leading to the absence of heart diseases among the rural Maasai community.
Physical inactivity, a leading risk of death
The importance of physical activity is acknowledged by World Health Organisation (WHO) which asserts that physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths annually.
Moreover, lack of physical activity is estimated to be the main contributor to approximately one in every four cases of breast and colon cancers, 27 percent of diabetes and approximately 30 percent of heart diseases burden.
The good news is that those who participate in any form of regular physical activity maintain a healthy body weight, have a lower rates of; coronary heart diseases, blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, colon, breast cancer and cases of depression. They also have lower risks of hip and vertebral fractures.
Recommended amount of exercise
The recommended amount of physical activity for children and youth aged between 5 and17 years is at least 60 minutes of moderate to high intensity physical activity daily.
Adults aged 18–64 years should do at least 30 minutes daily of moderate intensity physical activity for five days in a week or do at least 75 minutes of high intensity physical exercises in a week. In addition, muscle strengthening activities should be part of the exercises for at least 2 days in a week.
Older adults should do at least 150 minutes of physical activity throughout the week i.e. 30 minutes per day. This should include at least 2 days of muscle strengthening activities. More hours of physical activity beyond the commended periods offer additional health benefits.
Both outdoor and indoor physical activities are good for health. But, a work-out in natural environment is the real deal; it offers more in terms of health benefits.
Difference between physical activity and exercise
Physical activity is different from exercising in that it is any bodily movement produced by the muscles and uses energy; more often it leads to sweating. It includes exercising as well as other activities such as walking, doing household chores, gardening, swimming, cycling, hiking, dancing and many more.
Exercise, is a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive with the aim of improving or maintaining one or more components of physical fitness.
The increased awareness of health benefits of physical activities has led to a rapid increase in the use of indoor gyms world wide. The gyms have been further popularised by TV programmes such as slim possible and the biggest loser.
A few years Ago there were no Gyms
Surprisingly, 50 years ago, gyms, health or fitness clubs as they are known today were few and exclusive. The word gym is a short word for gymnasium which is derived from Greek word gymnasion. Gymnasiums of ancient Greek were places where athletes trained for public competitions, and they did so naked!
In the 19th Century schools and colleges built gymnasiums for sports and physical education. In the subsequent years Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) established several gymnasiums for sports, games and physical exercise. In 1930s boxing gyms evolved followed by chains of fitness clubs that charged membership fees. In 1990s an explosion of gyms for the public use took place.
Science and benefits of outdoor physical activities
Experimental research has demonstrated that exposure to views of nature can improve peoples’ health and wellbeing by providing restoration from stress and mental fatigue. This has led to suggestions that performing physical activity outdoors may have additional benefits above and beyond those experienced following the same period of physical activity in an indoor environment.
In 1996 a study was carried out in Japan on airline pilots and engineers comparing the effects of indoor and outdoor activities in recovery from jet lag. It was found out that outdoor exercise helped in recovery from jet lag and resynchronization of the circadian rhythm better than being active on a treadmill.
Those who go for an outdoor walk in a natural environment enjoy more, they are extra revitalised, have higher positive self-esteem, experience positive engagement, and they experience a decrease in feelings of frustration, worry, confusion, depression and tension than those who exercise indoors. This is according to very recent study carried out in 2010 by researchers from the university of Exter and Essex in United Kingdom.
Outdoor or “green” exercise affects health at three levels: by just viewing nature during a physical activity, by being in presence of nature while exercising and through active participation and involvement with nature.
In 2003, a study was carried out where participants were shown a video of natural settings and urban setting to evaluate calming effect. Those who were shown video of natural settings had lower mean heart rate and increased parasympathetic nervous system (“calming down”) compared to urban video group. This is because natural environment reduces emotional and physiological arousal which makes subjects less spatially selective.
Two years later in 2005, a survey was conducted in eight European cities and found out that people who live in areas with high levels of greenery are 40 per cent less likely to be overweight or obese. This is due to the fact that they are three times more likely to enjoy going out either for a walk, cycling or running compared to those who have to go to a gym.
Exercising while in presence of nature, reduces blood pressure and heart rate and as a consequence, exercises with equal intensity are experienced to be less tiring when performed outdoors than indoors.
In Sydney, Australia a study was carried out with adolescent boys to evaluate if outdoor physical activities can be used as a tool to prevent obesity. From the program, it was concluded that the physical education program with outdoor activities resulted in significantly better results in fitness, body composition, cardiovascular and muscular endurance, strength and flexibility than traditional indoor physical education.
Nature-related recreation activities on your own, with a friend or as a group bring joy and help to escape from the pressures and worries of everyday life. Those who have experienced stress at some stage in their life or tiredness after a long spell indoors, claim to feel relaxed and peaceful after a stroll in a green and natural environment.
In addition to health benefits, outdoor exercises especially when performed in the neighborhood, increases likelihood of people becoming familiar with each other and participating in local nature activities which increases the sense of pride in one’s community and strengthens urban neighborhoods.
The apparent benefits of outdoor recreation activities have led to what is called ‘green gym’. Green gym is in two forms. The first category involves different forms of ordinary outdoor activities such as digging, tree planting, out door cleaning etc.
The other category involves establishment of ‘green gyms’ in recreation parks. These ‘green gyms’ are built on a similar design and fashion to the well-established outdoor children play centres. The difference is that, adults go to play in them.
Green gyms have been linked with improvements in social networking and feelings of connectivity and companionship, an increased appreciation of nature and improvements in self-esteem.
There is also a new trend emerging of what is called ‘blue gym’. Studies show that people rate water or images with water more restorative. Therefore blue gym involves engaging in physical activities near water mass such as a river, pool of water, sea or ocean. Blue gym activities range from mild activity associated with walks along rivers and coastline to swimming, sailing, kayaking, and surfing.
The other side of the coin
Not all outdoor physical activities lead to better health. For example, those who exercise in streets of busy and unpleasant urban centres are subject to an increased post-exercise fatigue and increased blood pressure.
Furthermore, numerous studies have linked environmental pollutants during outdoor activities to respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological and reproductive health problems.
The common pollutants are particulates, toxic gases and fumes, toxic metals, volatile organics, pesticides, radiation and bioaerosols. Particulates are solid or liquids in the air and include dust from soil and roads, vehicle exhaust fumes, emissions from combustion and industrial processes, construction and demolition dust. Toxic metals such as Lead, Mercury, Cadmium and arsenic can also be encountered in course of outdoor exercise in industrial estates.
It might be argued that physical activity in gyms is a viable alternative to outdoor exercise especially for busy people or for those living in highly polluted environments. However, the failure to persevere with indoor exercise initiatives on a long-term basis is well recognised. For instance, almost half (40 – 50 percent) of individuals terminate gym membership within a year of joining. Therefore, for those who lack motivation to follow a strict gym routine, all is not lost; walking, running, cycling along streets is also good for health.
We are in the 21st Century where a wide range of jobs that previously required physical involvement are automated reducing physical activities to barely minimum. On the other hand to engage in physical exercises in a fitness club is abit expensive and viewed as a luxury by the majority. Physical activities are necessary component of a healthy lifestyle. It is therefore imperative that outdoor physical activities are considered, promoted and taken up as part of a balanced lifestyle. This is because they are cheaper, offers more health benefits and can be performed virtually anywhere. This is particularly the case in Kenya which enjoys warm weather throughout the year compared to temperate countries.
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