Picture this: You're sitting outside on a perfect summer afternoon. You're surrounded by trees, and the sun is hitting your face at just the right angle. If this image fills you with joy, there's a good reason why—research has shown, time and time again, nature makes us happy. Even spending just 15 minutes outside can spike happiness.
From an exercise perspective, there's no question that taking your workout outdoors is a good idea. Exercise improves happiness, and nature improves happiness, so the combination seems like a recipe for euphoria. But too often, people pass up the opportunity to move and breathe outside in favor of the treadmill or elliptical.
If this sounds like you—and if you tend to dread the gym—let the latest research incentivize you to move your exercise routine outside. A new study conducted in Austria and published in PLOS ONE found that when people exercise on a treadmill they're happier than when they're sitting inside, which makes sense. But the happiest people of all are the ones who go hiking, even when that hike is more strenuous than the treadmill walk.
For some, the key to exercising regularly is short, effective bursts of exercise. But if that doesn't work for you, the solution may be as simple as a long walk outside. Let's take a closer look.
Adding depth to your workout routine.
While nature provides an immediate happiness boost, Elizabeth Lombardo, psychotherapist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, says there are other reasons outdoor exercise is so beneficial. "Research has demonstrated in the past that nature or even looking at nature, such as in a painting, can help reduce stress. And doing exercise that you love, such as walking on the beach rather than pacing on a treadmill, can decrease stress and boost happiness," she says. "What’s more, the participants in this new study were walking outside with a group of people. Social interactions also lessen stress and increase happiness."
William Cole, a functional medicine expert and mbg class instructor, adds that outdoor exercise adds another dimension to our workouts. "There is an added depth and quality to it that resonates with us, primally," he says. "The combination of fresh air, sun, and nature amplifies our experience. Instead of being holed up in a gym or in our home, the same workout done both indoors and outdoors, being outside tends to be more enjoyable to us. It is this enjoyment that lends itself to sustainability. If we like what we are doing, we are apt to keep doing it, which is important for any exercise."
How to exercise outside.
When people think of outdoor exercise, the first thing that pops into their heads is usually running. And if you love running, that's great—but if you don't, walking outside in nature can be just as good for your happiness. "On a physiological level, your body releases chemicals when it exercises—think 'runner’s high,' which can take place without ever actually running," says Dr. Lombardo. "Being in nature and being with others can further decrease stress hormones that are circulating through your body and help enhance your mood."
The key to finding the right outdoor workout for you, Dr. Lombardo says, is to listen to your body. "Find what works for you, in terms of enjoyment and replicability. Look for ways that you can continue the exercise, such as meeting a friend before or after work for a nice brisk walk outside."
As for Dr. Cole, in his opinion nothing beats hiking. "If you are going to take your work outside, I love hiking! It really allows you to personalize your experience," he says. "You can pick harder trails, with higher elevations for more resistance and intensity or keep it simple with a beginners trail. If you are traveling, you can experience hikes in different parts of the world. Desert hikes, mountain hikes, are forest hikes are all a different experience to the senses."
Need outdoor workout inspiration? Here's a list of the most beautiful hikes in the world.