I’ve always believed the great outdoors has superpowers, but it wasn’t until I was recovering from cancer that I saw the true benefit to my wellbeing. And it hasn’t just worked for me. In 2019 when I launched my fitness business, Get ME Back, and started working outside with others affected by cancer, rain or shine, I saw first-hand the huge advantages being surrounded by nature and fresh air had on their mental and physical health.
Since lockdown many others have joined us, but will this continue? To reinforce my theory, I looked deeper into the evidence. And my findings have been pretty interesting…
When I set up Get ME Back, working outside was a no brainer. Being in the fresh air, surrounded by nature had helped me recover from cancer, so I wanted to help others feel the same. Having retrained as a Cancer & Exercise Specialist, I work closely with my clients to rebuild their strength and fitness in the safest and most effective ways before, during and after their cancer treatment. Some challenged my decision asking, ‘what will you do when it rains/snows/gets colder?’. But we stuck with it, wrapped up warm and both my clients and I are reaping the benefits. Even as I started to work virtually with people further afield, I always recommend we try and get outside.
Many are aware of the general health benefits of exercise. But for those affected by cancer, staying active before, during and after treatment is now widely recommended to help reduce treatment side effects, build energy, maintain and build muscle tone and improve bone and joint strength, particularly for women experiencing medically induced menopause. And those are just the physical benefits. Mentally, exercise helps those affected by cancer feel more in control of their bodies, it reduces anxiety, improves sleep…the list goes on (ACSM 2019).
But why is being outside any better? One of my clients said, “Amongst other things, being diagnosed with cancer felt like an end to any hopes of being physically fit and working out. Training with Sarah in the beautiful woodland near where I live has not only given me back my fitness, but has been so therapeutic and calming rain or shine! I think if we’d been confined to a gym I might have given up, but that regular dose of fresh air has motivated me to keep going.”
But don’t just take our word for it, here are the some of the scientifically proven benefits of exercising outside:
Improves mood & reduces depression
Outdoor exercise provides a greater mental health boost than an indoor gym. Training outdoors has been shown to reduce anger and depression and improve mood (Barton and Pretty, 2010). Exposure to sunlight (when it appears!) enhances vitamin D production, which may be partially responsible for this mood-enhancing effect (Kerr et al., 2015).
Anticancer effects of Vitamin D from sunlight
Sticking on the subject of Vitamin D, emerging evidence is demonstrating the inverse relationship between increased Vitamin D and reduced cancer risk. Due to an increase in time spent indoors working in offices and avoiding sun exposure, there is now a worldwide deficiency of vitamin D. However, strong evidence suggests that exposure to a greater amount of Vitamin D is associated with reduced incidence and death rates of colon, breast, prostate and ovarian cancers (Garland et al 2004).
A more recent Danish study found that women who spent more time outside because of their occupation were exposed to greater amounts of solar ultraviolet B radiation (UVR) which reacts with a chemical in the skin to produce the majority of total vitamin D needed for healthy individuals. The study suggests that those exposed to a greater amount of UVR rays over their lifetime were less likely to develop late-onset breast cancer (Pedersen et al, 2020).
You work harder!
There is even evidence to suggest that exercising outside encourages you to work harder. (Miller et al, 2020). Being outside can reduce your perceived effort during exercise meaning you can train harder without feeling fatigued. (Gladwell et all, 2013). According to some studies, distractions of the great outdoors can reduce your awareness of how hard you’re working and/ or the physiological barriers you may be feeling as you exercise, so you keep going for longer. Winning on all counts!
Enhances your self-esteem
Research shows that as little as five minutes of outdoor exercise can improve self-esteem (Barton and Pretty, 2010). Any outdoor location such as being near greenery or water will enhance this effect. A regular dose of outdoor activity can help boost the already powerful esteem-enhancing effect of exercise which is much welcomed after a cancer diagnosis.
It’s easy to access
Lockdown has helped us appreciate how easy it is to access the great outdoors. Many of us have taken advantage of reduced commuting or travel time to get outside and get moving, seeing how simple it can be to fit movement into our day. Local hills, paths and woodland provide ideal walking, running and cycling. Many outdoor areas include benches, trees, inclined roads and even designated exercise equipment, allowing for a variety of resistance-training exercises.
You can feel the connection with nature
One of the greatest benefits of outdoor exercise lies in its inherent opportunity to connect with Mother Nature. Exercising outdoors can help you feel grounded, deepen your connection to your environment and enhance your appreciation for the beauty around you. I take my clients to calm, quiet spots to train, away from the crowds and noise, where our sessions really feel like an escape from the world for a short time.
Now it’s important for me to say that outdoor exercise isn’t always for everyone and depends very much on your exercise goals and health circumstances. But lockdown has forced many of us to change our exercise habits and encouraged more outside fitness. However, as lockdown eases and the gyms reopen, will this continue?
Having looked in depth at data and based on my first-hand experience over the last two years, my clients are more motivated than ever to remain outside. To find out more, get in touch and look out for more stories discussing how exercising outside has helped so many following a cancer diagnosis and for ideas of how you can do it too (Follow @getmebackuk on FB and IG).
Sarah was treated for cervical cancer in pregnancy in 2018, and in 2019 launched her fitness business ‘Get Me Back’ (www.getmeback.uk). She has completed her CanRehab Level 4 Cancer & Exercise Rehabilitation qualification and is also a Breast Cancer Rehab Coach. She works virtually and face to face in the Surrey countryside. Those looking to participate in an exercise programme can be referred to Sarah by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
T +44 (0)7742 442137
Barton, J. and Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 44, 10, 3947–3955.
Kerr, D.C. et al. (2015). Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women. Psychiatry Research, 227, 1, 46-51.
Garland CF, Garland FC, Gorham ED, et al. The role of vitamin D in cancer prevention. Am J Public Health. 2006;96(2):252-261. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.045260
Pedersen JE, Strandberg-Larsen K, Andersson M, et al. Occup Environ Med Epub ahead of print. doi:10.1136/oemed-2020-107125
Miller, JM, Sadak, KT, Shahriar, AA, et al. Cancer survivors exercise at higher intensity in outdoor settings: The GECCOS trial. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2020;e28850. https://doi.org/10.1002/pbc.28850
Gladwell VF, Brown DK, Wood C, Sandercock GR, Barton JL. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med. 2013;2(1):3. Published 2013 Jan 3. doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-3
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