Article by Dr. Paul Batman, PhD.

One of the most significant changes in Fitness is the emergence of outdoor training. So much so that there are now new regulations on outdoor venues sustainability and new charges enforced by local councils and regulatory bodies to use these outdoors areas. (See ukactive Outdoor Code of Practice )

Green or outdoor spaces have been regarded as advantageous for an improvement in health over many years. In centuries past specific outdoor areas in the form of public parks, hospital grounds were set aside for outdoor recreation for inhabitants to receive the healing qualities of the surrounding greenery. It could be said that given our hunter-gatherer backgrounds that we have an affinity with nature.

In our modern city living we no longer have the daily opportunity to interact with the outdoors and often seek outdoor challenges in our spare time to satisfy our need for the outdoors.  Our digital existence has encouraged us to participate in more structured indoor activities. One particular benefit of outdoor training is the effective role it appears to play in increasing adherence to a fitness program. Some of the benefits reported include increased social interaction as well as a changed perception of the difficulty of the exercise session.

It has been reported that when we can self select walking speeds outdoors we invariably walk faster at a reduced perceived effort. This suggests that we can work harder at higher levels for a longer period of time outdoors as we perceive the exercise to be easier when compared to indoors.  The colours of the outdoors can also reduce our perceived exertion.

What causes this reduced perceived exertion?

The interaction of the various sensors in our body are stimulated including the visual and auditory sensors that play a major role in providing a distraction stimulus, which reduces the perception of effort. With the reduced perceived effort comes a positive change in mood and anxiety levels.

People who live in a green environment are more likely to be physically active with a 40% lower chance of being overweight or obese. The first five minutes of exercising outdoors appears to have the greatest impact on mood and self- esteem. Taking the outdoors to an entirely different level is the emergence of trekking outdoors or walking for long distances over a number of consecutive days for overweight and obese trekkers. A new area of research is examining the effectiveness of trekking as an intervention for weight loss and management.  Measures of plasma troponin after 30 kilometre walks indicate little or no increased risk of silent cardiac damage for fitter overweight people.

There have been strong reports that overweight clients cope very well to this long distance trekking prescription providing some form of fitness training precedes it. Initially the emphasis here is not on weight loss but on an improvement in aerobic fitness prior to the trek.  

We know that exercise in general, as a main form of intervention for weight loss is at best average. In this case it is used in preparation for the trip, which will provide the stimulus and the environment for the weight loss. The national guidelines of 150 minutes per week of walking are known to produce positive health benefits.

Encouraging results show that long distance trekking on fit overweight subjects has a very positive effect on their mood, self-esteem and weight loss. In this environment their food intake is monitored as well as their energy expenditure regulated. A reduction in fat mass per trekking kilometre is not unusual. Trekkers on hypertensive and diabetic drugs have also reportedly reduced their dosage as a consequence of the trek experience. The trek is challenging and in a controlled environment eliminates many of the risks of attempting something similarly alone for overweight people whom would not normally have this opportunity.

The continuous nature of trekking for a number of hours per day over a number of days creates camaraderie amongst the group as well as exposes them to the restorative properties of the outdoors.

Trekking provides the opportunity to share the physical experience with others similar to themselves, as well as providing a resource to learn from others and escape from the loneliness and isolation that sometimes can accompany being overweight.

Completion of a trek gives overweight people a strong sense of achievement and accomplishment, as well as creates a positive relationship with physical activity, which is not always possible in this group in normal fitness activities. 

Many people are turning to outdoor activities and challenges in their spare time, from fitness walks, moon walks, treks, triathlons and park runs just to name a few,  so how can you as a fitness instructor engage with this. Start to use the outdoors to teach your fitness classes, introducing all the elements of outdoors and building peoples fitness on uneven surfaces, fresh air, weather and new environments. Promote your classes based on all the benefits of exercise outdoors and link your training to plans to lifestyle outdoor activity choices. Review weigh loss interventions and look more widely for experiences outdoors in your classes that overweight people can successfully perform that will provide enjoyment and long-term adherence to their weight loss and management practices.

Remember successful long-term weight loss has to be a lifestyle change….

If you are interested in working outdoors why not take out outdoor fitness award