- All physical activity is good for mental health.
- Being outside enhances cognitive function.
- When we are active outside we leverage benefits from both exercise and the environment.
It turns out my mom was right all along. When I was growing up she would always tell me I had to get outside and do stuff. Now, it has to be admitted that part of my mom's wish to have me outside the house was just to give her some peace and quiet from my endless antics, but it also seems that she and many other moms and dads are onto something when they want their kids playing outside.
It's really only natural to be out in nature
When we're trying to move around and get some exercise into our lives, we need to channel animals. People are animals too, and animals move around. They usually do the moving around out in the environment in which they thrive, be it the ocean, on land, or in the air. Nowadays, modern industrialization and the planning of our towns and cities have rendered it very difficult and often unnecessary for humans to be out moving around on our own, yet it's critical to move our bodies about. We can do that indoors because we've created unnatural environments as a species, but we still are animals, and animals like to move around outside.
Your brain knows outside from inside
I think most of us intuitively appreciate that there is something different about being outside. Recent neurobiological research shows that your brain really does know and appreciate it when you do your movements outside rather than indoors.
Researchers affiliated with the University of Victoria and York University, in Canada, were interested in whether or not brain activity was sensitive to movement being done inside or outside. Katherine Boere, Kelsey Lloyd, Gord Binstead, and Olave Krigolson recently published a paper "Exercising is good for the brain but exercising outside is potentially better" in which they point out that "the environment in which the exercise is performed may be just as important as the exercise itself." It's known that simply being outside in nature can produce cognitive benefits similar to what you find after a bout of exercise. They wanted to know if there was an additional benefit if exercise is done outside, and asked, "What is the interaction between acute exercise and environment on cognition?"
Senior author Olave Krigolson told me that he's "always liked getting outdoors, and love exercising outside. I know it makes me feel great." He sees lots of folks being active as a great thing but wonders if the "where" matters and is measurable.
"From my office window, I can see people running on the treadmills inside our university fitness centre. Given how beautiful Victoria is, I always wonder why people don't walk and run outside. And if it is better for them? Does your brain really care?"
Using advanced electroencephalography (EEG) they assessed cognitive function before and after 15-minute indoor or outdoor walks on 30 participants in their early 20s. Additional cognitive performance and brain EEG signatures associated with working memory were enhanced after the outdoor walk compared to the indoor one. The researchers conclude that the environment in which we are active "may play a more substantial role in increasing cognitive function, such as attention, than exercise" itself. More work needs to be done, but this is a compelling result that further underlines the need to offset global urbanization and indoor sedentary behavior with deliberate and targeted physical activity interventions.
Karate and Kung Fu under a canopy of conifers
I found this study especially compelling for my own personal practices that dominate my physical activities: cycling and martial arts. I much prefer, and in many ways now, require training outside and cycling outside. Over the years, I have spent many hours doing indoor cycling and indoor martial arts training but I've never achieved the feeling of clarity and connectedness to the present that I experience when I cycle outside, especially through forests and natural areas, or train in martial arts under a canopy of trees or with the ocean at my side. I recognize I'm fortunate to live in a part of the world where beautiful natural environments are accessible to me and my activities year-round with very few exceptions. Yet no matter where I've lived, I've always tried to get outside to do activities as much as possible.
The truth is then, my mom was right all along. Getting outside of the house and into nature has multiple benefits for the brain and behavior. If you have the choice try to be active outside. Really leverage your deep animal nature for experiencing the world as all other animals do.
(c) E. Paul Zehr (2023)
Boere K, Lloyd K, Binsted G, Krigolson OE. Exercising is good for the brain but exercising outside is potentially better. Sci Rep. 2023 Jan 20;13(1):1140. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-26093-2. PMID: 36670116; PMCID: PMC9859790.