Spring is here. The outdoors beckons. Heed that call and you’ll reap physical and mental health benefits, reports the July 2010 issue of the Harvard Health Letter. Here are five good reasons to get outdoors:

Your vitamin D levels rise. Sunlight hitting the skin begins a process that leads to the creation and activation of vitamin D. Studies suggest that this vitamin helps fight certain conditions, from osteoporosis and cancer to depression and heart attacks. Limited sun exposure (don’t overdo it), supplemented with vitamin D pills if necessary, is a good regimen.

You’ll get more exercise. If you make getting outside a goal, that should mean less time in front of the television and computer and more time walking and doing other things that put the body in motion.

You’ll be happier. Sunlight tends to elevate people’s mood, and there’s usually more light available outside than indoors. Physical activity has been shown to help people relax and cheer up, so if being outside replaces inactive pursuits with active ones, it might also mean more smiles.

Your concentration will improve. Children with ADHD seem to focus better after being outdoors. It might be a stretch to say that applies to adults, but if you have trouble concentrating, outdoor activity may help.

You may heal faster. In one study, people recovering from spinal surgery experienced less pain and stress and took fewer pain medications when they were exposed to natural light. An older study showed that the view out the window (trees vs. a brick wall) helped recovery in the hospital.

One of the best places for outdoor exercise is the park, and here are five examples of how to turn the green spaces into your own personal gym:

  1. Park bench
    1. Push-ups
    2. One leg squats
  2. Swing set
    1. Pull-ups
    2. Hanging leg raises
  3. Stairs
    1. Calf Raises
    2. Side planks
  4. Grass
    1. Sit-ups
    2. Tai Chi
  5. Trails
    1. Running
    2. Lunges

Additionally, you stride differently when running outdoors. Generally, studies have found that people flex their ankles more when they run outside. Runners also, at least occasionally, run downhill, a movement that isn’t easily done on a treadmill and that stresses muscles differently than running on flat or uphill terrain. Outdoor exercise tends, too, to be more strenuous than the indoor version. In studies comparing the exertion of running on a treadmill and the exertion of running outside, treadmill runners expended less energy to cover the same distance as those striding across the ground outside, primarily because indoor exercisers face no wind resistance or changes in terrain, no matter how subtle.

Exercising outdoors is also the perfect stress reliever because it incorporates all five of your senses for a completely revitalizing experience. Give these exercises a try and you’ll feel better in no time!

Grant Sanders, DC, CSCS

This article was published in Fit News, the monthly online newsletter from UK Health & Wellness' Body Shop Fitness.