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

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Exercise is generally good for your body and brain, no matter how you do it. But research out this month suggests that even brief outdoor activities can be especially stimulating for your noggin. The study found that people’s cognitive function on a test improved after a short walk outside, but not after they walked indoors.

The research was led by scientists from the University of Victoria in Canada. They recruited 30 college students to take part in a simple experiment. The volunteers all took two 15-minute walks, outdoors or indoors. Before and after the walks, they had their brain activity measured while taking a test meant to measure their cognitive function and attention on an iPad, known as the oddball task. This test asks people to look at repeating patterns of something and to then correctly identify when something unusual appears.

Overall, people’s performance—specifically their response time in picking out the oddballs—improved after they briefly exercised. Post-exercise, their brain readings also showed the increased amplitude of a neural response known to be linked to attention and memory. But when the researchers looked closer, they saw that these improvements were only noticeable after the volunteers walked outside, not indoors.

“In conclusion, we demonstrate that a brief walk outside results in a greater increase in cognitive function than a short walk inside,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published over the weekend in Scientific Reports.

Plenty of other research has suggested that exercise in general improves people’s cognitive function. But some past studies have shown a similar brain-boosting effect from exercising outdoors compared to indoors. And the authors wanted to test whether this effect would remain for ends of exercise lasting less than 20 minutes.

That said, the results are based on a small sample size, so they should be viewed with added caution and should ideally be replicated on a larger scale. The authors note that lengthier or more intense exercise indoors might have more apparent cognitive benefits. It’s also possible that even brief indoor exercise can still sharpen people’s minds in ways not measured by this one test.

But the findings, they argue, suggest that the environment we exercise in can play a more substantial role in boosting cognitive function than exercise itself, at least for brief forays. Notably, other studies have shown that regular exposure to green spaces and nature can have numerous mental health benefits. If the authors are right, then it might reshape the health advice we give to people in certain situations, such as office workers.

“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,” they wrote. “Indeed, 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.’”

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