Summer is just around the corner, and as more Americans receive their COVID-19 vaccines, outdoor activities are becoming more accessible and appealing. This is great news for runners (and walkers!) who are growing tired of the dreaded treadmill. In fact, running outside provides a more beneficial workout—both physically and mentally—than the alternative.

Build More Muscle

Running outside requires your muscles to adapt and work harder. Richard T. Cotton, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine, explains that the varied terrain of outdoor surfaces “stimulates the muscles in your feet and legs in a different way, getting a more well-rounded workout for your legs and ankles.” Studies have demonstrated that running outside leads to improved leg strength and ankle flexibility when compared to running on a treadmill.

 Outside, more glute and hamstring activation is necessary to push the body forward. On a treadmill, every time you take a step, the belt carries your leg back behind you to complete the stride. Off the treadmill, your hamstrings and glutes pick up this extra load. Over the course of an entire run, this small factor makes a big difference. “It’s a different neuromuscular pattern,” notes James M. Pivarnik, Ph.D., director of the Human Energy Research Laboratory at Michigan State University.

Non-flat surfaces, climbing and descending the occasional hill, and working against wind all serve to make outdoor runs more challenging. This translates into more calories burned and more muscle built over the course of your workout. According to Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine, outdoor running also “enhances neuromuscular control and balance.”

Avoid Injury

Counterintuitively, the softer surface of a treadmill isn’t necessarily better for avoiding injury. Over time, repeated impact on varied surfaces leads to more bone formation and growth. Running outside puts more impact on your bones and connective tissues. As long as you don’t overdo it, the higher impact will help prevent injury. Running outside also means that you don’t have any rails to hold onto or buttons to punch; these aspects of treadmills can affect your running form and lead to problems. 

More Sunshine, More Vitamin D

More than 41% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. This deficiency is connected to a variety of health problems, including fatigue, poor bone density, depression, and a weakened immune system, among others. Running outside can help address this problem by exposing you to sunlight.

Spend More Time Exercising 

Research has shown that individuals who exercise outdoors are likely to exercise more often and for longer periods of time. Furthermore, running outside is free and accessible—you don’t need a gym membership or any fancy equipment. You can run practically anywhere, making it easier to avoid skipping workouts.

Improved Well-being

In addition to strengthening your body, running outside improves your mental health. According to a review published in Environmental Science and Technology, “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.”

Among other psychological benefits, running outside can boost your self-esteem, reduce stress, improve concentration, elevate energy levels, and improve memory and attention span. It can also provide the excitement of exploration or the beauty of natural scenery, marked improvements over staring at the same section of wall in the gym. 

While, of course, any exercise is better than no exercise, it’s hard to argue for treadmill running when running outdoors offers so many advantages. Enjoy the warmer weather and celebrate relaxed quarantine restrictions by lacing up and heading out the door! Your body and your mind will feel happier and healthier for it. 

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Camille Sammeth

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