Even though the saying “abs are made in the kitchen” seems to hold pretty true – meaning that what you eat is more important than how you exercise when it comes to visible body changes – the smoothest path to those visible changes may actually be found in the woods!
Time spent outdoors, particularly in soothing natural green and blue spaces, has proven health benefits that may just help you supercharge your weight loss efforts and reach that next level of fitness. Here are 7 reasons why:
Stress hinders fat loss – time spent in nature reduces stress
Countless studies link long-term elevated cortisol levels with overweight and obesity. In fact, a quick Google search of “cortisol and obesity” brings up 261,000 results in less than a second, and they’re all saying the same thing – stress hormones encourage higher blood sugar and body fat storage. This is one of the reasons I am convinced that my lifelong efforts at weight loss failed until I incorporated meditation into my daily routine!
But while I often get pushback from clients about not being able to meditate, I do not get the same resistance to spending a little time outside. And a 2018 systematic review of over 140 studies concluded that outdoor exposure to green spaces reduces cortisol.
Depleted mental energy promotes overeating – walking outside relieves that fatigue
Mental fatigue, decision fatigue, brain exhaustion – we’ve all experienced a long day of THINKING and how tiring it can be. Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten a headache from studying! I know I have. And when our brains are tired, it is much harder to make healthy choices in lieu of something quick and easy.
Exercise on its own after mental work has restorative properties that reduce the chances of overeating, but exercise outside boosts it by a mile (pun totally intended!). One Finnish study showed that just 15 minutes spent in nature had restorative effects on decision-making. A 2015 study out of Stanford demonstrated that a 50-minute park walk improved mood and cognition, while a 90 minute walk literally changed the brain to help prevent depression!
Inflammation increases weight gain – and nature reduces inflammation
Whether just by inhaling the clean, fresh natural compound-infused air or putting your body in direct contact with the earth, trees, or water, multiple studies show that putting yourself in contact with green or blue spaces creates marked decreases in inflammatory cytokines in the human body. A direct quote from one 2021 review states “nature exposure influences measurable immunological parameters in healthy individuals as well as in people suffering from acute or chronic inflammatory conditions, and that inhaling certain volatile natural compounds can have a beneficial effect on the elicited immune response.”
TL;DR – more nature, less inflammation, better immune system!
Outdoor activity increases your sense of community – healthy social connections make weight loss easier
Humans are social creatures, even introverted ones like me. Taking my exercise to the park instead of getting my steps in on the treadmill has always made me feel like part of something bigger. I identify as “one of those healthy people” who takes advantage of the local spaces to walk, hike, bike, roller skate! During the pandemic, the majority of which I spent living alone, seeing & smiling at others moving their patooties at the park was my primary form of socializing, and it definitely kept me on the sane side of things.
That said, my anecdote doesn’t prove anything – but studies do show that the social network you identify with plays a significant role in positive weight loss outcomes. If you want to successfully change your body, you need to identify with people who enjoy caring for their bodies in public – and you will definitely find more of those people participating in outdoor movement!
Outdoor exposure helps you sleep better, and better sleep = increased weight loss
Good sleep is CRITICAL for good health, nevermind weight loss. Sleep regulates hunger hormones, promotes insulin sensitivity and healthy blood sugar responses, reduces cravings, restores energy balance, and promotes strong impulse control. And what does science say promotes better sleep? Fresh air and time spent in green spaces, even if it’s just in your garden!
One 2019 review declared “a positive association between green space exposures and sleep quality and quantity.” That means the more time spent outside, the better the snooze you are likely to have later.
Of course, there are many factors involved in getting a good night’s sleep – as a perimenopausal woman, I know that hormone fluctuations can make it more difficult even when I’m doing “everything right”. That said, every little bit counts and I can definitely say that I tend to sleep better on the days I go for long hikes.
Natural light promotes Vitamin D synthesis – Vitamin D is necessary to promote healthy metabolic function
Low levels of Vitamin D have been correlated to obesity, overweight, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes among other conditions. Just 8 – 10 minutes of sun exposure can help us shore up our levels, even more efficiently than a supplement – and this STILL happens on a cloudy day. Also, studies have shown that sunscreen does NOT block Vitamin D synthesis, so don’t skip it thinking it’s going to gain you MORE Vitamin D.
Hypertension can sabotage weight loss – time in nature may reduce hypertension
Circling back to our “destressification” beginnings – green space exposure has been shown to not only reduce stress hormones, but also to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, two of the primary symptoms of hypertension. Hypertension is linked to several detrimental health conditions including overweight and obesity, with the suggestion being made that hypertension makes it more difficult to keep weight lost by dietary interventions off.
The solution? Decrease hypertension, increase the chances that your weight loss will “stick”.