Outdoor exercise: the benefits and advice for a healthy and active lifestyle

Exercise or sport in the open air is a pleasure for people of all ages. Outdoor sports, whether it’s walking, cycling or climbing a wall, give you the chance to keep fit and avoid problems caused by being sedentary, all while enjoying the stimuli that nature and the surrounding environment can provide beyond the walls of a house or gym.

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Exercising outdoors allows you to interact with the environment and add to the benefits of physical activity itself the advantages of contact with nature and the sensory and social stimuli that outdoor activities bring. There is little need to explain why pedalling on an exercise bike and doing it on a bike path or in a park are not the same experiences.

Contact with nature and green spaces in cities can improve people’s health and wellbeing, not only physically but also psychologically, reducing stress and mental fatigue. This suggests that outdoor activity may provide additional benefits beyond those experienced with indoor exercise done at the gym or at home. In addition to tangible effects such as improved mental wellbeing, outdoor sport has also been correlated with improvements in social networks, greater appreciation of nature and increased self-esteem.

Engaging in year-round outdoor physical activities also increases your chances of getting the necessary amount of sunlight to synthesise vitamin D. Exposing yourself to the sun and outdoors every day is enough to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D. Active living positively affects health at all ages. As children and during growth, physical activity is particularly important for bone and muscle development and for improving learning abilities. It’s also an important factor for socialising, and an effective tool for developing relationship dynamics. Exercise, associated with a proper and adequate diet, also decreases the risk of childhood obesity and chronic diseases.

For adults, exercising or playing a sport on a regular basis helps to stay fit. Maintaining the efficiency of muscles and joints and increasing energy expenditure allows better control of body weight. An active lifestyle is also a key element in improving bone mineralisation at a young age. This, combined with adequate and controlled sun exposure in the outdoors, allows for the synthesis of vitamin D, which helps maintain normal bones.

Regular physical activity in healthy people can help reduce blood pressure, keep blood sugar levels under control and balance cholesterol, improve digestive function and intestinal regularity.

Finally, physical activity also has beneficial effects on the health of the mind: it helps prevent and reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, loneliness and depression, it contributes to maintaining cognitive function, reduces the risk of developing dementia, improves the quality of sleep and mood, and increases self-esteem. These effects are enhanced when you exercise surrounded by nature: open spaces and greenery help you relax. In the third and fourth age, exercise plays an important role in keeping active and maintaining self-sufficiency, while also promoting sociability. It can also reduce the risk of falls, prevent or delay the onset of chronic diseases related to aging, and facilitate rehabilitation pathways.

There are a whole host of physical activities and sports disciplines that can be done outdoors, giving plenty of choice.

There are physical activities and individual or team sports  that require the availability and proximity of sports facilities or that require special equipment, such as tennis, basketball, golf, skiing, climbing, to name a few, and activities, such as brisk walking, running, jogging and bodyweight, which can be practiced anywhere, both indoors and outdoors, although, in general and where possible, it’s always better to exercise in green areas.

During pregnancy, unless there are serious contraindications, it’s important to exercise regularly, because it improves blood circulation, which is important for foetus health, helps to control weight gain and reduces the risk of pregnancy-related diseases. It also reduces symptoms of stress, mental fatigue and anxiety, and decreases the risk of postpartum depression. Pregnant women can easily practise walking, soft gymnastics, water exercises, yoga and pilates, modified and adapted so that they can be done without risk during pregnancy. Walking, in particular, strengthens the pelvic floor and gives physical and psychological benefits that help reduce the risk of depression.

With the onset of menopause, physical activity helps strengthen bones, lowering the risk of fractures and osteoporosis, counteracting weight gain, improving mood and preventing cognitive decline.

The most suitable outdoor aerobic activities are those with low impact on the joints, such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and golf.  Balance exercises are also very useful, to improve stability and posture and prevent falls: they can also be done in the garden or in a park, as long as they are on even ground.

Stress is an often-unavoidable part of everyday life. It’s impossible to eliminate it completely, but you can learn how to limit it, manage it and control its impact on your quality of life. For example, many studies show that physical activity is effective in reducing mental fatigue, increasing concentration and improving cognitive function in general, as it promotes the brain’s production of endorphins.

Regular aerobic activities have also been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilise mood, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can have anti-anxiety effects.

To achieve significant health benefits, it’s important to exercise regularly. Over the course of a week, at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity are required, plus strengthening exercises for major muscle groups twice or more a week. This goal can be achieved, for example, with five sessions of 30 minutes of exercise per week, or with three workouts of at least 25 minutes of vigorous intensity three times a week, or even combining the two types of training in each session. Moderate-intensity activities are those that cause a modest increase in heart rate and breathing, such as brisk walking or cycling on the flat at medium speed. These are, to simplify, those activities that allow you to be able to talk easily, but not sing while you are doing them.

Regardless of the motor activity chosen, it’s important that the workout routine always includes an initial warm-up phase and a final relaxation phase. These two moments, even if they take a few minutes, are important for the prevention of injuries and muscle pain and also to improve sports performance. A gradual warm-up phase stimulates the cardiovascular system by gradually increasing body temperature and blood flow to the muscles. Conversely, the relaxation phase allows your resting heart rate and blood pressure to gradually recover.

These two phases, depending on the activity, can consist of specific exercises to be done before and after training or practising the same activity, but at a slower pace and reduced intensity for the first and last 5-10 minutes. It is also useful to introduce some stretches into your routine, which should always be done when your muscles are already warmed up. If you’re approaching sport for the first time after a long period of inactivity, it’s always a good idea to start gradually, with sessions of 10-15 minutes, gradually increasing the intensity and duration, and seek advice from your doctor to check that there are no impediments to the chosen activity.

Working out outdoors also involves some extra care, starting with the weather. In summer, it’s important not to cover yourself excessively, but to wear comfortable clothing in layers, protecting against any wind. Any outdoor activity must include the use of products to protect against excessive sun exposure. When engaging in outdoor physical activities outside of sports facilities, you must pay close attention to the routes you choose, as the terrain can be rough and uneven, and to surrounding traffic. For the latter reason, it’s best not to use headphones or keep the volume very low if you do.

People who suffer from seasonal respiratory allergies should take special care, especially in spring. This is the season with the highest concentrations of pollen in the atmosphere and outdoor activities should therefore be avoided, especially on windy days. Keeping away from green areas is not enough, as pollen can travel many miles on air currents, but wearing a mask can help filter out at least some of the dust and pollen.

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