Outdoor Exercise Boosts Brain Health

The choice between indoor and outdoor exercise is a no-brainer, scientists say.

What’s happening: A new study determined, while all exercise is known to improve cognitive function, activity conducted in an outdoor environment produces more benefit to the brain than the same exercise indoors.

Using Muse EEG headbands to measure cognitive performance before and after a 15-minute walk, the outdoor group demonstrated a clear boost over the control:

  • Improvements in reaction time more than doubled for the outdoor group.
  • Cognitive attentional scores were far greater for the group in nature, attributed to restored mental capacity and enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex.
  • Indexed task performance increased for the outdoor group but not the indoor group.

Moreover, the authors sounded the alarm on the world’s increasingly urbanized and indoor lifestyle, adding:

“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.’”

Natural Movement

The findings shouldn’t come as a surprise, as exercise and spending time outside are separately linked to better mental health — with a recent study advocating for movement as a “first-choice treatment” over the leading pharmaceutical antidepressants.

But the world is waking up to the effectiveness of the combo for better mental health, leading to a boom in walking, open-air gyms, and trail activities.

And, at the start of Mental Health Awareness Month, active and outdoor brands are aligning themselves with the cause:

  • NYC-founded City Girls Who Walk, a free social walking meetup, expanded to 150 cities with 30K+ participants while securing partnerships with aerie, Teva, and others.
  • Outdoors retailer L.L. Bean partnered with Strava, encouraging participants to log 500K hours outdoors in a challenge raising money for nonprofit Mental Health America.
  • Hipcamp and REI partnered with Outdoor Journal Tour, a nonprofit women’s meetup for hiking and outdoor meditation, sponsoring weekly guided hikes throughout the month.

Punchline: As American therapists grapple with record levels of depression and anxiety, we’re somehow missing the fact that free treatment for mental health and cognitive function is right out the door.

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