Exercise is generally good for your body and mind, no matter how you do it. But research this month suggests that even brief outdoor activities can be particularly stimulating to your head. The study found that in one trial people’s cognitive function improved after a brief walk outside, but not after walking indoors.
The research was led by scientists from the University of Victoria in Canada. They recruited 30 college students to participate in a simple experiment. All the volunteers took two 15-minute walks, either indoors or outdoors. Before and after the walk, their brain activity was measured while they took a test on an iPad to measure their cognitive function and attention, known as the awk task. This test asks people to look for a repeating pattern of something and then correctly identify when something unusual appears.
In general, people’s performance, especially their reaction times in choosing the odd one out, improved after they exercised briefly. After exercise, their brain readings also showed an increased amplitude of a neural response associated with attention and memory. But when the researchers took a closer look, they saw that these improvements were only noticeable after the volunteers walked outside, not indoors.
In their paper, the researchers wrote, “In conclusion, we demonstrate that even short walks outside lead to greater increases in cognitive function.” published In Scientific Reports over the weekend.
many other tests suggested That exercise improves people’s cognitive function in general. But some past studies have shown a similar brain-boosting effect of exercising outside compared to indoors. And the authors wanted to test whether this effect would hold for exercise bouts of less than 20 minutes.
That being said, the results are based on a small sample size, so they need to be viewed with caution and ideally replicated on a larger scale. The authors note that longer or more intense exercise may have more pronounced cognitive benefits. It’s also possible that even brief indoor exercise can sharpen people’s brains in ways not measured in this trial.
But the findings, they argue, suggest that the environment in which we exercise may play a larger role in enhancing cognitive function than exercise itself, at least for brief bouts. In particular, other studies have shown Regular exposure to green spaces and nature can have many mental health benefits. If the authors are correct, this could change the health advice given to people in certain situations, such as office workers.
“Given the continued growth of urbanization and the shift to an indoor lifestyle, our results highlight the importance of spending time in nature, especially while exercising,” they wrote. “Indeed, in a world where many people ‘go to the gym’ before or after work or on their lunch break, our results suggest that these people would be better served by simply ‘going out’.”