Outdoor Exercise Might Be Better for Your Brain Than Hitting the Gym

Exercise is a good thing—that much you’re probably familiar with. What if, then, you learned that exercising outdoors was an even better thing, especially for your brain? You might as well start lacing up your trail runners because a recent study suggests that outdoor exercise does more to improve cognitive function than working out indoors—and 15 minutes may be all the time you need to reap the benefits.

Walking + time in nature = happiness (and improved brain function)

The Study

The study, published in Nature earlier this year, was conducted by scientists at the University of Victoria, BC. Their research looked at a few different things:

#1. The effects of acute exercise (as brief as 15 minutes) on brain function, specifically on attention and memory.

#2. The impact of acute outdoor exercise on cognitive function: could it benefit the brain even more than performing the equivalent exercise indoors?

#3. The potential additive (i.e., stronger) impact that exercising outdoors can have on brain function.

To test these theories, the scientists recruited 30 college students and divided them equally into two exercise groups: one outdoor and one indoor. All students were instructed to walk for a 15-minute period. Before and after their walks, the students completed an oddball task, a common test psychologists use to measure cognitive function and attention. While the students worked on the task, researchers recorded their brain activity using neuroimaging.

The Results

#1. Students in both exercise groups performed better on the oddball task after their walk than they did beforehand. In other words, evidence suggests that acute exercise improves cognitive function. However—

#2. Students in the outdoor exercise group showed a greater increase in cognitive function than those in the indoor group. Neuroimaging showed a noticeable increase in the amplitude of a neural response linked to attention and memory for the outdoor group only.

#3. The increased amplitude of the neural response for the outdoor group indicates that outdoor exercise had an additional impact on cognitive attention.

As it turns out, these results are supported by an ever-growing body of scientific research. Studies have shown that nature can restore mental capacities and enhance cognitive performance. This research, along with evidence suggesting that acute exercise provides similar benefits, has led scientists to explore the possibility that combining exercise with outside time could have an additive impact on the brain.

“We demonstrate that a brief walk outside results in a greater increase in cognitive function than a short walk inside. Given the continued growth in urbanization and a move to an indoor lifestyle, our results highlight the importance of spending time in nature, especially when exercising,” the University of Victoria paper concludes.

The news we’ve all been waiting for…

The researchers from this study also wrote that “in a world where many people ‘hit the gym’ before or after work or on their lunch break, our results suggest that these people would be better served by simply ‘getting outside.'”

Hikers, rejoice—it seems we’ve been doing it right all along. Hiking is great exercise, and it conveniently allows us to get our nature fix at the same time. Also, it gives us killer legs, we can eat whatever we want, and we’re surrounded by an admittedly quirky but incredibly supportive community of fellow hikers and trail angels. Most importantly, we’re happy, and it’s really cool to see some of the science behind why that’s so.

READ NEXT – 4 Ways Hiking Improves Your Mental Health

It’s worth noting that not every single thing about thru-hiking is merry and bright. Overuse injuries are abundant, the thru-hiker diet is often questionable, and post-trail depression and health decline can be serious. Fortunately, a lot of these things are either preventable or treatable—it’s just important to keep them in mind.

“It’s always wise to take extra precautions by checking for ticks, striving for a healthier diet, and stretching each night to keep your muscles limber,” Trek Writer Colleen Goldhorn writes in Weighing The Potential Health Risks Of Thru Hiking. “After all, many successful thru-hikers start dreaming of more trails after their hike, and you’ll want your body to be healthy enough to conquer any future adventures you have up your sleeve.”

Featured image: Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

    What Do You Think?