No matter where you live, spring is the kickoff to outdoor workout season — when you get the itch to be on trails instead of treadmills, ride on two wheels instead of in spin class and partake in al fresco bootcamps.
Best of all, studies are beginning to document that going outside can make you work harder. Researchers suggest you’re likely to expend more effort — and get more results — than you would in the gym.
Here’s why you work harder outside:
1. INCREASES MOTIVATION
Sometimes, the hardest part of a workout is simply motivating yourself to do it. Going outdoors can help, according to a study that compared walking or running outdoors with the same activity indoors.
For most participants, getting outside brought feelings of revitalization and increased energy, as well as decreased tension. Outdoor exercisers also noted that they had more intent to repeat the activity at a later date than gym-goers, which means they were building up motivation for the next workout session.
One possible reason may be that getting outside causes a cascade of physiological changes, including lower levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — and lower blood pressure. Sunlight can also play a role since it delivers a boost of vitamin D, which has been associated with improved mood.
2. BURNS MORE CALORIES
Outdoor exercise burns more calories than indoor exercise, according to outdoor fitness expert Jimmy Minardi of Minardi Training. It’s not the fresh air by itself that torches calories, it’s the ground and wind, he says.
“Your body has to fight to stay stable on uneven ground and maintain its temperature in all kinds of weather,” he says. “The lack of wind resistance you experience running indoors on a treadmill, combined with the additional assistance of the moving belt, makes treadmill running easier than free-range running.”
When your body has to adjust its temperature, particularly to compensate for a cooler environment, you may see an increase in “brown fat,” some research notes. That creates positive changes in your metabolism that allows calories to be burned faster and more effectively.
3. WORKS MORE MUSCLES
The action of creating stability on uneven ground is what causes your body to recruit different muscles than you’d use indoors, notes David Musnick, MD, co-author of “Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness.” There’s also a tendency to throw in some high-intensity moves even if you’re doing seemingly static strength training.
“In certain outdoor situations, you may need to perform a movement with high resistance at quick speeds,” he says. That might be a quick high step on a rock, a jump across a puddle or a brief climb over an obstacle. Shifts like that recruit more muscles and improve overall conditioning, Musnick states.
For example, one study noted that people flex their ankles more when they run outside. You also tend to go downhill at some point — a movement that’s difficult to replicate on a treadmill or inside a gym — and that puts an eccentric load on your quads and hamstrings. The body responds by strengthening tendons in those areas to withstand the same type of strain in the future.
4. FEELS MORE INVIGORATED
If you’re feeling lackluster and thinking it’s time for a latte run, you may want to keep the “run” part, but skip the latte.
“Exercise itself is sure to reinvigorate you when you’re feeling sluggish, but fresh air can up the effect,” says Minardi. That sense of renewed energy ties back into motivation, and can help you work out longer and increase performance — which means more results overall, he notes.
He suggests several exercises that can help you cross-train while you’re outside, including doing a plank against a tree or bench, runner lunges, triceps dips and stair step-ups.
No matter what exercise you pursue, it’s a good idea to ease into outdoor workouts, even if you’ve been in beast mode all winter at the gym. Because you’ll be recruiting different muscles and dealing with new terrain, give yourself time to get used to those elements and build up intensity over time.