With summer in full swing, it's the perfect time to mix up your routine by taking your workout outside. After all, exercising outdoors may improve energy levels and decrease stress to a greater extent than working out inside. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K. Environmental Science & Technology, 2011, Feb.;45(5):1520-5851. But if your habitat is more concrete jungle than bucolic park, don’t sweat it—there are plenty of benefits to exercising inside as well.
And there are other perks. Vitamin D—one of the fat-soluble vitamins essential to strong bones and a healthy immune system—can be attained via sun exposure. While much debate exists around the guidelines, some researchers suggest that five to 30 minutes of sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. at least twice a week is sufficient for vitamin D synthesis. Of course, this recommendation also comes with a caveat you already know: Always wear sunscreen and cover up when possible.
Likewise, if you’re outside, you need to pay attention to the weather. Both extreme heat and cold can pose a variety of issues. If you’re sweating during the summer, it’s important to know the symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion. In the winter, experts advise you dress in multiple layers to stay warm and get familiar with the early signs of frostbite and hypothermia.
Taking It Inside
If you live in an area prone to air pollution (looking at you, L.A.), you may be better off working out indoors. Pollution and other environmental factors can also trigger respiratory problems like allergies and asthma.
Heading to the gym may also be a better option for those who need extra motivation to make their workout happen. One study found that people who work out with a partner are generally more motivated than solo exercisers. Two-player partnered exergame for obesity prevention: using discrepancy in players' abilities as a strategy to motivate physical activity. Feltz DL, Irwin B, Kerr N. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 2012, Jul.;6(4):1932-2968.
In addition to the social environment offered at gyms, experts say that group workouts led by a certified instructor also ensure participants get a safe and effective workout, learn proper cues, and stay accountable—there's no skipping those hellish burpees you usually "forget" to do. Plus, you can continually try new, innovative workouts that you may not be able to do on your own.
And let’s face it, gyms have advantages no study needs to prove. Those hot, steamy showers, saunas, pools, and even spas can make any exercise experience feel a lot more luxe.
The Best of Both Worlds
In the end, you don’t have to choose just one. Some workout groups exist entirely outdoors, while lots of gyms offer seasonal classes outside.
As the line between indoor and outdoor exercise continues to blur, what’s becoming clear is that mixing up indoor and outdoor sessions is a great way to keep exercise exciting and, most importantly, fun.
Originally published in June 2011. Updated in June 2015.