Exercising outdoors may reduce the risk of poor mental health, according to a new study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

Researchers compared the use of natural environments (open spaces, parks and forests) with non-natural environments (gyms or sport centres) for physical activity such as walking, running and cycling. Using questionnaires about people’s general health and mental wellbeing, researchers found a possible link between exercising in natural environments and a lower risk of poor mental health.

Dr Kim Glass, Lead Physician for Bupa Health and Wellbeing, said: “It’s essential to highlight that the researchers used questionnaires to assess people’s mental health, so we aren’t talking about serious, diagnosed mental health conditions. Instead feelings or symptoms associated with lack of sleep, inability to make decisions and a lack of self-confidence. We also don’t know the how much or for how long people exercised in different environments so it’s possible that people may have exercised for longer or at a different intensity when outside compared to being in the gym.

“As, this is a relatively small study, we do probably need more research to confirm that these suggested mental health benefits are associated with exercising outdoors. However, the key message here is no matter where you exercise, the benefits are endless for both your physical and mental wellbeing. It’s thought that exercise releases chemicals in your brain (called endorphins) that make you feel good. In turn, this can boost your self-esteem, help you sleep well and concentrate better. Not to mention the many other health benefits like keeping your heart healthy, losing excess weight and preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes and some cancers.

“Fundamentally – don’t ditch the gym, just get moving. No matter whether you’re in a park, forest, gym or sports centre, do something you enjoy and you will be one step further to a healthier you.”

Information about nearly 2,000 people from the 2008 Scottish Health Survey looked at the different types of physical activity people did and where people were most likely to do this. A general health questionnaire and the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Health and Wellbeing Score were used to assess people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Key facts

Aim to do 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate exercise over a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. You can break this down into manageable chunks of 30 minutes on at least five days each week.

Why don’t you try:

  • walking or cycling to work
  • organising a lunchtime exercise activity or walking group
  • playing with your children in the garden or park
  • joining an organised bike ride or run

Produced in collaboration with Bupa Health Information Team, June 2012

Related hubs

  • Fitness and exercise
  • Healthy mind

Related topics

  • Benefits of exercise
  • Exercise– getting started
  • Looking after your mental health

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