Exercising in natural surroundings — a jog through a park, a bicycle ride along a trail — could be more beneficial than working out indoors, a new review suggests.

However, access to natural areas that are public varies widely, with not everyone having the chance to exercise outdoors, the investigators noted.

“The research is clear that natural settings could be an effective venue for promoting physical activity,” said lead researcher Jay Maddock, director of the Texas A&M University Center for Health & Nature. “People generally enjoy being outdoors, with parks, trails and community gardens being the most popular venues.”

Currently, more than 3 of 4 adults fail to get the weekly amount of physical activity recommended in the United States, researchers said in background notes.

Such exercise can prevent chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and osteoporosis, researchers said. It also can enhance immune function, improve mood, aid pain control and extend life expectancy.

For the study, published recently in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, researchers analyzed data from prior research regarding the benefits of outdoor exercise compared against indoor workouts.

The studies revealed a mix of potential benefits from outdoor physical activity — improved mood and brain function, better social interaction, greater enjoyment of exercise and possibly even less perceived exertion.

The researchers noted that the studies focused on short-term outcomes of less than one year, however. Whether these benefits accumulate long-term remains to be seen.

In addition, certain groups are less likely to be able to exercise in a green space, researchers added.

For example, rural areas often have less access to natural spaces because there’s more privately owned land, Maddock noted.

“For example, nearly 98 percent of Illinois residents live within half a mile of a park, compared to only 29 percent in Mississippi,” Maddock said in a university news release.

Men are more likely to use parks and green spaces than women, possibly out of safety concerns, researchers found.

And Black adults are less likely than white, Latino or Asian/Pacific Islander people to work out in parks, according to one Los Angeles-based study.

“In addition, children, the elderly and people with disabilities face challenges in accessing natural spaces,” said senior researcher Howard Frumkin, director of the Land and People Lab at the Trust for Public Land. “Ensuring that these spaces are safe and easy to navigate, with appropriate programming, could help increase their use of parks and other natural settings.”

Maddock and Frumkin said doctors should consider “prescribing” parks and natural settings to their patients.

“Recommending that patients spend more time in these settings is known as nature prescriptions, or ‘ParkRx,’ and while more research is needed, the studies to date suggest that this approach is effective,” Maddock said.

Health professionals could also help fund efforts to create and maintain parks and green spaces, and engage in community efforts that promote their use, the researchers added.

“It is clear that the use of parks and natural settings for physical activities could be a potentially powerful tool for promoting two important health behaviors simultaneously,” Maddock said. “This could be especially important, given that the majority of Americans do not get enough exercise or spend enough time outdoors.”

More information

The American Council on Exercise has more about outdoor exercise.

SOURCE: Texas A&M University, news release, June 13, 2024