From the bio-mechanical to the metaphysical, the inherent benefits of exercising outside come as no surprise to the outdoor-lover.
Indeed most of us can agree that we just feel plain better in the dirt than we do in the gym. But to back up our instincts, science also suggests a variety of benefits, from improved gait on a trail versus a treadmill to more calories burned per time spent on a bike outdoors versus indoors.
But then, of course, comes the inevitability that afflicts even the most avid outdoorsman. Blame winter, a business trip, or just plain inconvenience, there are always those times when going outside just isn’t feasible.
Even when we’re trapped inside, new research from the University of Coventry’s Department of Applied Sciences and Health suggests that perhaps by simply by changing our environment indoors, we can glean some of the benefits of outdoor exercise.
The study measured something that’s well established in exercise, known as the hypotension effect, or a drop in blood pressure that occurs from 15 minutes to up to 48 hours after exercise. Health practitioners agree lower blood pressure leads to less risk of developing cardiovascular and other health problems.
Researchers set out to determine if a simulated green space environment—in this case, a video game-like experience shown to children while they cycled on a stationary bike—would result in a further beneficial drop in blood pressure compared to exercising without images of green space. The children who were shown images of nature while exercising did indeed show a significant drop in their blood pressure.
Dr. Michael Duncan, Associate Head of Applied Science and Health and lead researcher on the study, explained why the researchers chose to study the effects of simulated nature on children. Similar studies have been done in adults at rest and have established that looking at images of green space result a similarly beneficial hypotension effect.
“Partly because the weather is so rubbish in the UK, some children don’t get access to quality green space often enough,” Duncan said. “So we wanted to see if we could simulate the same [beneficial] effects of real nature in an indoor environment, and if it would augment with exercise.”
Beyond British schoolchildren, Duncan’s results have practical applications for those of us stuck on a treadmill. The reason green exercise, whether real or simulated, has this added bonus is simple: As humans, nature soothes us.
“What’s happening when you look at that image [of a tree, an ocean, or a mountain],” Duncan explains, “is that the nervous system takes its foot off the accelerator so to speak and puts its foot on the break—that actually physiologically brings everything down to a lower level.”
While Duncan expected the result of similar experiment conducted in the actual outdoors would be “the same or stronger,” he did not say that all simulated images of nature would be equally effective. For example, watching the Tour de France while riding a stationary bike might include too many distractions and stimulations that would counteract the calming effect unlike, say, a more hypnotic and repetitive option like a surf film.
“The theoretical basis is that, like actually being outdoors, simulated green space is a distraction technique that’s calming,” Duncan said. “The idea is [the exerciser] becomes more immersed into what’s going on.”