Why You Should Exercise Outside As Much As Possible
Updated: Mar 9
Exercise is great no matter where you do it, but what if I told you your gym might be reducing your gains?
Multiple studies have shown that the air inside public gyms contains harmful levels of chemicals like formaldehyde, lower oxygen, and higher amounts of harmful bacteria.
On the other hand, exercising outdoors comes with a number of research-backed benefits for your health and fitness.
And while exercising in a gym is always better than not exercising, there are some simple tools you can use to get your training outdoors with little effort or expense.
What's Wrong With Public Gyms?
I could riff on the pitfalls of public gyms for a while. From an efficiency and productivity perspective, there’s the matter of making the drive, potentially finding all the equipment you need is in use, or a number of other psychological factors.
Here’s the thing though, I also see the benefits. For a while, going to a public gym gave me energy. I loved being around other people getting after it, and something about the commute made me feel a level of commitment I didn’t get from just working out at home.
So here are the issues with public gyms you can’t get away from: light, air, and bacteria.
A number of studies have found that many public gyms contain concerning levels of carcinogens in the air. One study found harmful levels of carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in multiple fitness centers.
High carbon dioxide levels may be the result of poor ventilation alongside the large number of people breathing the air, which in-turn could result in less oxygen. This won’t kill you, but it can certainly put a dampener on your gains.
In addition, most gyms have few windows and primarily use fluorescent lights. Artificial light, especially later in the day, along with light flicker, can have a negative effect on circadian biology and may even trigger fatigue and headaches in sensitive individuals. You can read more about the effects of artificial light in an article I wrote for Better Humans here.
In short, indoor environments, especially those of crowded public fitness facilities, come with a number of biological dampeners that can have a negative effect on your exercise quality.
The Benefits of Getting Outside
Exercising outside, on the other hand, comes with a series of biological boosters.
Japanese research on the practice of Shinrin Roku, or Forest Bathing (not literally bathing. Just being outside) exposes you to plant phytochemicals.
As a result, it was found that outdoor-goers had reduced levels of salivary cortisol (the stress hormone) which could in-turn result in improved testosterone in men, and better hormonal health in general for both men and women.
Other research on shinrin-roku found that tree and plant odors, running, and the sound of streams and flowing water combined to have stress reducing effects not replicated indoors. For more benefits of shinrin roku, most notable for the brain, check out my article for Better Humans: Hug A Tree, Fix Your Brain here.
What’s more, if you can exercise barefoot, you can also take advantage of the many proven benefits of earthing. Earthing, or the practice of being electrically grounded to the earth by walking barefoot or in leather shoes, has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, and reduce systemic inflammation, as well as prevent or ameliorate chronic disease.
This is nothing to mention the potential benefits of sunlight, and heat or cold exposure benefits depending on the weather and time of year.
How to Exercise Outdoors Easily
Now, obviously most people go to the gym because they need the equipment there which they do not have at home or could not access outside. I hear you, but it’s actually a lot easier to train outdoors than you think.
Resistance bands are by-far the best way to take your fitness center with you anywhere. You can simulate every machine exercise or compound lift with resistance bands and some simple creativity.
If bands don’t seem like enough, or you’re just looking for something different, I am able to do 90% of my strength workouts using a simple pair of gymnastic rings and a sturdy tree branch. Over the past 5 years, living in 4 different locations in multiple parts of Texas, I have never yet been unable to find a proper tree for my gymnastic rings.
Furthermore, running, cycling, and sprints all represent outdoor fitness activities you can use to supplement your gym work.
Now, don't get me wrong. It is better to exercise in a public gym than not to exercise at all. Weather conditions, lack of equipment, convenience, and other factors may not make it realistic to train outdoors year round, in which case you should still go to a public gym rather than not workout at all.
However, if you can train outdoors, it is one of the best ways to augment your exercise routine for improved health and fitness benefits.
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