The Most Important Principles for Staying Young: Do Physical Activity Outdoors

18 Oct

Our basic premise is that your body is amazing.  You get a do over. It doesn’t take that long, and it isn’t that hard if you know what to do.  In these notes, we give you a short course in what to do so it becomes easy for you and for you to teach others. We want you to know how much control you have over both the quality and length of your life.

This month, we want to talk about an important and wonderful study done in Philadelphia that you can advocate for (or copy) no matter what city you are in. It involves how to make you happier if you live near a vacant lot or abandoned home. Now, there are a lot of benefits from the great outdoors for the body and soul. Research shows a walk in a park or woods can decrease arterial stiffness, improve lung function, lower blood pressure, and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And in a new study, researchers found being around even a bit of green can transform your outlook.

In the study, researchers tracked the mental health of over 300 Philadelphians after doing one of three things with an abandoned plot of land near their residence: by clearing trash and planting trees and grass and keeping the area maintained in 37 abandoned plots of land; by only removing trash and maintaining grass in 36; and by leaving 37 vacant lots as they were. Over three years, the research team observed that the participants living near the spaces with new plantings of grass and trees experienced a 40%+ decline in depressive symptoms and a sense of worthlessness.

So, advocate for converting vacant land into a garden. And bring plants indoors too. They boost your mood by reducing stress, and NASA says they can remove 87 percent of air-borne toxins in 24 hours.

Now, moving plants inside relates to moving your exercise plan indoors as the winter approaches or when smog from forest fires decreases the value of exercise outdoors. If you enjoy gardening, walking, cycling, or other warmer-weather activities, it’s hard when a serious chill, snow storm, or smog from a fire or other cause makes it impossible to relish your outdoor activity as much. Fortunately, there are many indoor activities like indoor gardening, jumping rope, swimming, strength training, yoga, aerobics classes, and using the treadmill or other exercise equipment that can take the place of enjoying physical activity outdoors—keeping you fit, happy, and looking great and getting healthier.

To encourage you to embrace working out during winter (inside or outside, when you can), here’s some info that will help you gain the body-and-soul benefits that come from daily physical activity. They’ll give you a younger RealAge, a better love life, improved stress management, less wrinkles, a stronger ticker, and reduce your risk for many cancers, diabetes, some cancers, depression, dementia, and a roster of maladies from constipation to insomnia.

Outdoor Benefits in the Winter

One 2011 study found that “compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy.” The researchers did caution there weren’t a lot of high quality studies on the topic, but you know how great it makes you feel!

Outdoor Risks in the Winter

To help you feel more positive about exercising indoors in the winter, here are some potential health hazards associated with outdoor winter exercising:

  • Cold air can be hard on the lungs and cardiovascular system (not smart if you have asthma, heart disease, poor circulation, or Reynaud’s disease).
  • Falling on icy patches can cause serious injury.
  • If you get too cold, hypothermia is a 911 emergency. It happens when the body automatically starts shuttling blood from your skin to your vital organs to keep them warm. It’s signaled by shivering, slurred speech, lack of coordination, and fatigue.
  • Frostnip and frostbite are always a danger. Frostnip says “Get inside!” Frostbite is a medical concern; tissue can be damaged permanently. A wind chill of minus 16.6 F can cause frostbite in less than 30 minutes.
  • Cold air traps particulate matter and other pollutants close to the ground, so air quality can suffer (air pollution is worse in Denver and Beijing in the winter, for example). You can check for air quality in your area before you head out.

The Benefits of Indoor Physical Activity in the Winter

  • Even if you’re resistant to exercising indoors, we’re betting we can convince you of its virtues!
  • Think about how much less time it takes if you’re at home, where you’re going to do that 45-minute yoga routine or sweat along with a Jillian Michaels video.
  • At a gym, you get the reinforcement and socialization that comes with going to a designated place for a specific committed workout.
  • And at home or at the gym, it’s so easy to mix up your routines. One day you can jog or walk the treadmill or ride the stationary bike. The next you’re doing an aerobics or stretch class, and after that there’s strength training with bands or hand weights!

But Indoors or Out, Be Aware of Air Quality

Exercising means you’re breathing more often and more deeply than usual and taking more air into your lungs, so if air quality is poor, you may breathe in more harmful pollutants. Also breathing through our mouth (it’s only natural when you exercise) doesn’t filter air like breathing through your nose. More pollutants enter your airways and smaller inhaled particles can get deeper into your lungs. The more pollutants you breathe in, the more likely you are to experience their negative effects.  You can learn more about how spices and foods you can grow can help you have better lungs, see Dr Roizen’s upcoming book to be published by Ntl Geo entitled “What To Eat When”.

So make sure you workout or garden (and gardening is working out) in well-ventilated environments with low pollution levels— whether at home or the gym. Everything from animal hairs to dust mites and particulate matter from a fireplace or wood-burning stove can provoke allergies and asthma. And remember, when heading outdoors, pay attention to air quality reports—parks are generally better than roadways.

Hope you choose to do these steps now—exercise outdoors if possible, check air quality, convert vacant lots to gardens, exercise indoors (plan now on how to do it) if you can’t do it outdoors and bring plants indoors too—that will help you live at the top of your curve.


Thanks for reading. Feel free to send questions to:

Dr. Mike Roizen


PS: Please continue to order the new book by Jean Chatzky and myself, AgeProof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip.




NOTE: You should NOT take this as medical advice.
This article is of the opinion of its author.
Before you do anything, please consult with your doctor.

You can follow Dr Roizen on twitter @YoungDrMike (and get updates on the latest and most important medical stories of the week).  The YOU docs have two newly revised books: The patron saint “book” of this column YOU Staying Young—revised and YOU: The Owner’s Manual…revised —yes a revision of the book that started Dr Oz to being Dr OzThese makes great gifts—so do YOU: ON a Diet and YOU: The Owner’s Manual for teens.  

Michael F. Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. His radio show streams live on Saturdays from 5-7 p.m. He is the co-author of 4 #1 NY Times Best Sellers including: YOU Staying Young.

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