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Outdoor Running: Good For the Body, Even Better For the Mind

By , SparkPeople Blogger
As the days get shorter, it gets dark earlier and cold temperatures become the norm, my opportunities for exercising outside start to dwindle.  I get out as much as I can and I’m fine with bundling up if I have to, but I’m not crazy about running in the dark in an area with limited sidewalks.  Often I end up heading to my basement for a run on the treadmill, but it really never gives me the same amount of satisfaction.  Now a study shows that the physical benefits might be the same, but the mental benefits between an outdoor and indoor run might be different. 

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, found that “the people who ran outside ran faster than the people who ran on treadmills, yet they had lower perceived exertion and the highest levels of positive engagement, revitalization, tranquility, and course satisfaction.”  60 runners were tested and interviewed in different environments as part of the study. 

Most research shows that there’s not much of a calories burned difference between an outdoor versus treadmill run (of the same distance.)  There are other advantages to outdoor running like adapting to different terrains and weather conditions (like wind), that can’t be replicated indoors.   But for me, the mental benefits of an outdoor run are what matter most- it’s a stress-reliever.  I feel like I run faster and can go farther outside because I enjoy it more and I’m not constantly looking down at a display that tells me how much time I have left and how fast (or how slow) I’m going.  I know that everyone is different, and those stats are motivational for some people.  They just aren’t motivational for me.     

There can be safety advantages to treadmill running (for example, if you don’t have access to sidewalks or don’t feel comfortable running alone after dark.)   Many elite runners use treadmills as part of their training regimen, and some people just prefer the convenience a treadmill can offer.  But if you spend most of your time at the gym and don’t run outside, I’d encourage you to give it a try.   You might find the outdoors help you enjoy your runs (or walks) even more.   

These days, I’m slightly jealous of the person who can get out for a run when the sun is shining or it’s a really nice day.  My schedule doesn’t always allow for that kind of flexibility, so I do my running where and when I can.  But for me, there’s nothing like getting outside and breathing in the fresh air.

Do you prefer to run or walking indoors or outside?  What makes you choose one over the other?

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I walk. And I very much prefer to walk outdoors. We have quiet roads and lots of trails in the woods nearby. Those trails are so peaceful and relaxing! Report
When I first started running, it was on the treadmill, because I didn't want anyone to see what I looked like. Once that I started running outdoors, I find it extremely difficult to run on the treadmill. I have run outdoors in some weird weather, just to *not* run on the mill. It has given me some great stories to share! Report
I can run eirther inside or outdoors, but I prefer running on the trail next to my house. It is also used as a Nordic walking trail. Report
Outdoors! Starting training a couple years ago in January and ran in the cold, cool and warm. Can't run in HOT weather very well, but I sold my treadmill because once I started running outdoors, I couldn't run inside any more. Report
Totally agree. I love running outside so much more. I run faster and longer outside and it's a great stress reliever. It never fails to boost my mood. I do use my treadmill on rainy days and for speed drills so I'm glad to have it. Report
I much prefer running outdoors but would love to own a good treadmill for those days when it is too icy to run around here. Report
I can't handle the treadmill anymore, for the same reasons. I declared this the Winter of Cross-Training, and decided that I'm only doing one treadmill workout per week, and then a long(-ish) run outside on Saturdays. The other days, I use the elliptical or arc trainer at the gym, or take a class. Report
Outdoors. I don't own a treadmill, and I'd rather run on city streets than use the treadmills at the gym. Report
Outdoors, hands down the best! Report
Absolutely positively running outdoors. The treadmill is NOT the same exercise, I don't feel it the same way and it lacks the extra release of being outdoors. Even when it's cold, dark and raining, outside is better. Report
I prefer to run outdoors but as the days get darker earlier, i need to start running indoors for safery! Report
When I first started running a couple of years ago, I was hesitant to run outdoors (I have no idea why) but once I did my first road race, the first time I ran not on a treadmill, I was amazed!! Now I stick to outdoor running when I can, even in the dark with flashlight or cold or snow or whatever. I just love it, and the feeling I get after a good outdoor run is almost second to none!! Report
NOTHING compares to an outdoor run. Report
I am a walker rather than a runner and prefer to walk outdoors - it feels so much better! Report
I have just run my first ever 5K--I still don't see myself AS a runner but I am learning that I can DO this! I do prefer to run outside--on grass if I can get it! Report
I'm not a runner but I do like to do my exercise outdoors. It can be freezing cold and that's fine, but ice is a dealbreaker. I will go indoors before I risk breaking my tailbone by slipping on ice again. Report
Today I went to walk with my mom because I just felt too tired to climb on the treadmill this morning. After walking for half an hour with her on the bike path, I decided I DID feel like running and did. It was being outside that did it. Even though it was drizzly and spitting snow, it still felt great. I need to do this more often. Report
I agree 100% with the study! My favorite form of exercise is running outdoors. I prefer it but like you said it is dark early when I usually do it so I have been doing indoor cardio...but it is just not the same. Report
I have a gym membership for the truly crappy days, but every time I'm about to go on the treadmill, I read about someone going for a run in worse weather than what I'm experiencing and end up outside anyways.

Last year, I ran 8 miles of intervals during an ice storm on unplowed roads at 5 am. I will NOT be doing that again this year. THOSE kinds of days are why treadmills were invented. Report
I love running or walking outdoors. Besides giving mental/emotional/physical benefits, outdoor walking/running can be combined with errands, so it can be a timesaver! Report
I dread the treadmill. I love running outdoors and I don't use earphones either. I just like stretching my legs and experiencing the out doors.
Thanks for the post. Report
Just switched to the treadmill and it seems harder and longer...than outdoors. I use the incline and find it more difficult. Like to run outdoors better!!! Report
I much prefer the outdoors for my walks but it is harder with the winter days...dealing with cold and early darkness. I think it is healthier to get some time outdoors each day if you can. I get so bored on a treadmill but there is always something interesting outdoors! I really feel being outdoors is better for you! Report
I dont run outside, I find I dont run as long or as hard as I do on the treadmill. That is kind of weird, but perhaps I haven't found the right place to go for a run outside. I live in a city that is usually too cold to run for 8 months of the year. That could be something I can do in the late spring or summer, I'll have to try to find a good spot for a run and see what everyone loves about it! Report
The dark and cold don't drive me's the ice. On weekends I can do my running near midday, if temps and sun have melted the icy patches. Otherwise, alas, it's the treadmill. I can't really complain though, because I'm lucky to have one. Report
I will run on the tread mill if there is no other option, but it is not the same as being outside. I love running outside and I'm taking advantage of the unseasonable weather this weekend to do some running outdoors. Report
I am in the middle of a C25K training and I much prefer running outdoors. Not only is the scenery better, but the treadmill can be so relentless. The treadmill doesn't automatically adjust to small increments in my pace. Report
I strongly prefer to exercise outside, but it gets so cold here. I honestly end up staying indoors without exercise most winters. But this winter, I am determined to change that! I got into a fitness class routine at my local gym mid fall, so it is already a habit by the time winter is officially hitting. And sure it is dangerously cold several days out of the year in the Midwest, paired with equally dangerous ice and such. But there are far more days when an outdoor work out is feasible, and I am determined to seek and take advantage of those days this winter. Report
I walk indoors if I wan to burn caloried, outdoors if I'm walking for relaxation. If I'm outdoors, I tend to lollygag. I like to look at the trees and flowers and people's yards and it slows me down. Report
My main exercise is swimming, but I walk my dog for 30 minutes every night at 9PM. I'm lucky to live in the country where it's safe to do this. This article reinforces the benefits I gain from being outside. Most nights I smile up at the moon, stars, and my favorite constellations (I don't know why they always make me smile, but they do!). I smell the pine trees, or the dampness of a recent rain. It's a sensory experience of reconnecting with nature that is very renewing... Report
I sure do like running outdoors, it's a lot more interesting. You need to stay more alert if in a metropolitan area-but that's ok. I'm not a big cold weather fan, but am gearing up to run outside more this winter as the benefits far outweigh the defitict for me! Report
Running outdoors is always much more enjoyable for me too! I always feel like a hamster running on a wheel when I'm on the treadmill lol but it is more convenient and safe in these dark winter months. I am looking forward to more daylight in a few months! Great blog =) Report
I'd rather exercise outside than inside. Report