Green Exercise: Get Fit and Happy in the Outdoors

green exerciseOutdoor trends don’t often start in the halls of universities. Instead, they tend to be born in places like a bike junkie’s workshop in Marin County (where the first mountain bike was cobbled together) or in the trunk of a car in Yosemite Valley (where Yvon Chouinard sold homemade gear that revolutionized climbing.)

However, the next big outdoor exercise trend originated in peer-reviewed studies and academic papers—from Oxford, Yale, Stanford, and MIT—full of data and graphs and medical terminology. It’s called “Green Exercise.”

Get Healthier and Happier Outside
For years, we’ve been told to hit the gym for both general health and to cross-train for skiing, biking, or surfing, in effort to to offset the muscle imbalances. But academia is now telling us the gym isn’t nearly as good as bringing the gym outside.

Physiologists at Oxford and Yale took a group of subjects and had them do a workout at the gym. Then they moved the gym equipment to a natural setting and had them do the same workout. Researchers measured indicators of mitochondrial decay (the cellular process responsible for aging) and found that the outdoor workouts better fought decay. The Stanford study had two groups of people walk briskly through two environments while measuring their brain activity: one through a natural area, another through downtown Palo Alto. The park group showed more signs of creativity and relaxation; the downtown group showed more brain activity linked to stress and depression.

Nature is in our DNA
Researchers hesitate when they’re asked why exercise in a natural setting is better, because the research has yet to isolate particular mechanisms. But Harvard biologist Edward Wilson suggested that the interest in nature is hard-wired into our genetic code. Our DNA is housed in our mitochondria, the part of cells that best react to exercise outdoors. The proof isn’t nailed down yet, but it stands to reason that the DNA-centric part of our cells is going to be happiest in the sounds, smells, and views that resemble where it evolved.

Doctors Recommend Outdoor Fitness
As universities and research hospitals take note, we may soon see major shifts in the outdoor industry. Portland, Oregon has a pilot program called PlayRx that teams up doctors with the parks department. Docs and physical therapists, in addition to making standard medical prescriptions, can give people trail maps and show them where they can workout outdoors. Parks have developed “nature play” areas where kids can run around and jump on logs rather than artificial monkey bars.

On the Trail
As the health benefits of outdoor exercise become more mainstream, we’ll see changes in outdoor sports. Trail running is staging a resurgence. You’ll see more covered places to do traditional workouts among fresh air and trees, a common practice in South Korea. Expect more portable workout gear we can use outside. People stopping in the middle of a hike to do push-ups and planks will become the norm. Fitbits, heart-rate monitors, and apps used for outdoor cross-training will become more popular.