Thursday, May 28, 2015

Outdoor Exercise & Mental Illnesses

       I have a gym membership, and after a lot of trial and error, I am now able to use it.  I say that because I don't want to give the impression that I think gyms are bad, because I don't. An upcoming post is going to be on the benefits of gyms. 

       With my conditions, in the beginning it was simply easier to exercise outside. In some ways, it is also better for me to exercise outdoors, which is why I do more than half of my fitness routine outside the gym. 

       When I was first exploring which activities would be best suited for my needs, I found quite a lot of research about the benefits of exercising outdoors vs. indoors. I also found that there were many practical reasons for getting active outside.

       I live in an area where the temperatures can vary by more than eighty degrees throughout the year. In the summer the humidity can be as high as ninety percent. In the winter, snow and ice can make it difficult to walk, much less run. I have had to learn to be creative. There are several reasons that I still go to great lengths to exercise outside. First, I’ll give the  practical reasons, and then the scientific ones.

1.  Exercising outdoors is free, and all I have to do is walk out my front door to do it. Sometimes just getting out of bed is a monumental task. On those days, if I have to get in my car and drive somewhere that is loud, sweaty, full of perky people, has televisions blaring the news and is full of equipment that I (in the beginning) didn't know how to use, then I am probably not going to exercise. There are ways around those obstacles, but that is for the post about gyms. Simply stepping out my door and going for a brisk walk down the street is all that is required to get my endorphins pumping and to drastically improve my mood. On bad days, I am much more likely to summon the courage to do that than anything else. Walking and jogging are my go-to exercises and all I have to do is to make it out my front door to do them.

2.  Being outside reconnects me to the world. I don't mean as in watching the news, but in the immediate world around me. If I am walking from home, then I am in the city. On the days that I don't want to leave my room, but force myself out for a brisk walk, I see people are going on about their lives. That gives me hope that I can do the same. If I am able to drive to a nature trail or greenway, then the effect is astonishing. Seeing the trees, hearing the birds and feeling the breeze is meditation in motion for me. Obviously, everyone's  surroundings are different. When I have to travel, I find different city walks and different types of nature trails to have the same effect as they do here in my immediate vicinity.

3.  Another nice thing about being outside is I can’t quit. If I feel horrible, or my brain is on overload, it is easy to step off of cardio equipment or to stop using a resistance machine, and slip out of the gym. However, if I just walked or jogged a certain distance and decide that I don’t have it in me to do it that day, I can’t just stop. I have to get back to where I started. If I just jogged two miles out, I at least have to walk two miles back. Unless I’m in the city and take a cab, it’s a foolproof plan.

 4.  The journal Environmental Science and Technology published findings in 2011 which indicate exercising outdoors is more beneficial for those with mental illnesses. "The study found that most trials showed an improvement in mental well-being: compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date." Not only do the benefits appear to be greater when exercise is done outside, people, myself included, are more likely to do it again. Those are two very important factors when I am deciding on whether to go to the gym or go outside.

5.  The National Institutes of Health have found similar results in their studies. In several different trials, volunteers were asked to go for two walks for the same time or distance — one inside, usually on a treadmill or around a track, the other outdoors. Nearly all of the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more. On psychological tests following the activities, the participants scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside compared to inside.

6.  People’s strides are different when walking or running outdoors. Also, occasionally, they go downhill, a movement that can’t be done on a treadmill. Going downhill stresses muscles differently than running on flat or uphill terrain. Because of that, outdoor exercise tends to be more strenuous than the indoor version. In studies comparing the exertion of walking or running on a treadmill compared to the exertion of walking or running outside, treadmill users expended less energy to cover the same distance as compared to those who were outdoors.

7.  Finally, being out in the sun is vital for me. I suffer from my depressive symptoms much worse during the winter months. Others, who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), tend to only suffer during the winter. Either way, The Mayo Clinic offers this advice, "Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help."

       For whatever reason, when I was first starting, I truly believed that I needed to go to the gym to experience the full benefits of exercise. As Dr. Jacqueline Kerr, professor at the University of California San Diego wrote, "After all, despite the fitness industry boom we are not seeing changes in national physical activity levels, so gyms are not the answer." That doesn’t mean that gyms can’t be part of the answer; it just means that they aren’t the entire answer. There are times that I am extremely grateful for my gym. 

       However, getting outside is simple, free and engaging. It doesn’t overwhelm me. It doesn’t allow me to quit. It is usually more enjoyable. Science has proven that I get better psychological and physiological results from exercising outdoors. Studies show that people, myself included, are much more likely to continue to exercise if they do it outside, and to top it all off my serotonin levels get an additional boost from the sunshine. If you can’t tell, I am a strong proponent. If you are a gym lover, I promise to cover your true love as well. 
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes with eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people. 
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