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.