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Is Exercising Outdoors Better for You than Hitting the Gym?

If you're lucky enough, you might be able to exercise outdoors all year round.

Unfortunately, if you live in other parts of the country like the Northeast or Midwest, you aren't so lucky. Experiencing winter's wrath can put a damper on your fitness routine, especially when it's much more comfortable and convenient to sit on your couch after a long day of work.

But, when the weather starts to get nice again, you may wonder if exercising is better outdoors, or if you should continue using your gym.

Even though your gym may have machines, you may be able to find a great workout by using everyday structures, like a park bench or monkey bars at a playground.

What kinds of exercises can you do outdoors?

Dr. Greg Wells joins Dr. Mike to discuss if working out is better indoors or out.
Is Exercising Outdoors Better for You than Hitting the Gym?
Featured Speaker:
Dr Greg WellsDr. Greg Wells is a broadcaster, author, coach and athlete who has dedicated his career to understanding human performance and how the human body responds to extreme conditions.

He has trained dozens of elite athletes to win medals at World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. Dr. Wells also serves as the assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto where he studies elite sports performance.

He also serves as an associate scientist of physiology and experimental medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children where he leads the Exercise Medicine Research Program. Dr. Wells is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes (HarperCollins, June 26, 2012) and is a sought-after speaker on the topic of human performance, speaking at top events like TEDx and the Titan Summit alongside Sir Richard Branson.

A frequent contributor toThe Globe and Mail, he has been an expert in other top media outlets like ABC News, "20/20," The Discovery Channel, CBC and CTV. He also served as the sports medicine analyst for the Canadian Olympic Broadcast Consortium for the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games. For more information visit

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: March 31, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

Anti-aging and disease prevention radio is right here on RadioMD. Here's author, blogger, lecturer and national medical media personality, Dr. Michael Smith, MD, with Healthy Talk.

DR MIKE: My guest is Dr. Greg Wells. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes. His website is It's all one word. Dr. Wells, welcome to Healthy Talk.

DR WELLS: Thanks very much. Great to be with you.

DR MIKE: So, you know, we just went through what we're calling 5 secrets, but I actually think they are kind of secrets. You know why, Dr. Wells? I think a lot of us who aren't elite athletes, we think that they're doing something, some herb that's giving them some amazing power. They're doing some secret stretching routine, but, really, the secret is they're doing the basics, aren't they?

DR WELLS: They're doing the basics and they're doing the basics consistently. It's nothing—not rocket science. There's nothing hidden. There's nothing secret. They just do it every single day.

DR MIKE: So, we had the 5 secrets. Make sure I've got these right. So, sleep. Right? That was important for recovery, growth, hormones. Nutrition. Really packing in nutrients in each calorie. Calories really do count. Exercise – kind of alternate, peak. Recovery. Then, you mentioned sports psychology. And then, the last one, say that again. That was picking something that you want to be the best at. Is that what you meant? Performance at your best.

DR WELLS: Yes. Perform better. Just challenging people to get out there and go for it. Just challenge yourself. Register for an event. Push the limits of what you're capable of. Discover something that...Go after your passions. Try to find some way of really, really pushing the limits of what you're capable of. You'll be blown away at what happens to all aspects of your life when you try to do those sorts of things.

DR MIKE: Yes. It kind of builds confidence in other parts of your life, doesn't it?

DR WELLS: I believe so. I think when you push the limits of what you're capable of, you discover those limits and you start to work on all the things that are going to help you expand those limits which are eat, sleep, move, think and the things that we just discussed among many, many others. Thinking about being healthier is great, but the fact is, when you try to perform at your best, your health is going to improve. When you try to do great at your job—really great at your job--in order to do that, you have to be healthy. When you try to do things to help you perform better, your health improves as well. A little bit of a different way of approaching and a little bit of a shift in mentality that I believe can make a huge difference.

DR MIKE: It sounds awesome. So, let's shift the conversation now to exercising outside versus a gym. Now, Dr. Wells, I have an opinion about this—a definite opinion about this. It's just me. So, let me just give you my personal thing on all this. I hate gyms. Listen, I work all day long, right? And, it's a long day and, to me, going to a gym, I feel like I'm just going to a second job. So, you know what I do? My listeners know this. I have a border collie. She's an awesome dog. I just go out and I play with her. You know? That's my activity and I know it's not...I'm sure you would probably get me doing some other things and pushing myself. I get that, but I just...I can't do a gym. I don't know. So, what do you think? Am I wrong or what?

DR WELLS: No. You've been saying the right things. Let's be realistic. Eighty-five percent of our population doesn't get any physical activity at all, so if it works for you to go to the gym, go to the gym. But, if you can do physical activity outdoors, it can take what you're doing and supercharge it to another level completely. There is some great research that shows that by being out in the forest, being near trees, that can decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol by about 12%. Your heart rate decreases and your blood pressure decreases somewhere between 5 and 10%. If you even just look at a picture of trees. If you look at a picture of trees with water, it goes down even further. So, this is a huge, powerful impact you can have on your body and your stress and a number of different things if you just simply get outside. Exercising outdoors is even more powerful.

DR MIKE: So, basically, what you just said--I'm going to have some listeners that are going to take a picture of their back yard, put it on their treadmill and they're just going to walk on their treadmill with a picture of their tree. How about go out to the actual tree? That might be a little bit better, I think.

DR WELLS: Yes. Or, put it on the desktop on your computer. If you have to be at work, throw a cool picture up that, when you minimize your screen, you're looking at something. It'll help you all day long. That's what I tell a lot of my clients.

DR MIKE: Okay. So, what kind of timeframe are we talking about here? Like, when I take my dog for a walk, it's a good hour and it's not just walking. We run together. You know, she always has to bring her tennis ball with her. So, it's a pretty active hour, but is that enough? Is there any research showing that I could do less or more or what do you think?

DR WELLS: The research shows that five minutes is enough to start having positive impacts on your body. It's incredibly powerful.

DR MIKE: Five minutes?

DR WELLS: Five minutes and, even more incredibly, it appears that the benefits of exercising outdoors in nature last for up to a week and the mechanism behind that is because trees produce something, an airborne chemical called "phytoncides". Plants omit these phytoncides to protect themselves. When we inhale those phytoncides, it activates our immune system to make us healthier. To help us fight off illness. To help us. It just stimulates this reaction inside of our bodies that has all of these other benefits: improved attention, memory, reduced incidence even of depression. So, there is actually a chemical pathway that's been identified that shows that there is actually a rationale for this.

DR MIKE: Yes. You know, Dr. Wells, they found those same compounds, too, in sea weed.

DR WELLS: Really? Isn't that interesting?

DR MIKE: Yes. The Japanese, who consume about 4 grams of sea weed a day and they are some of the longest living people, right? Some people are linking it to these types of compounds that we're finding throughout the plant kingdom. So, that's interesting that you bring that up.

So, we want people outside more, which is great. I totally agree with you, so you're a great guest. What about, though, because when I'm out a lot, at the park or whatever, people are out jogging, maybe, but they have like the headsets on, you know? They're not really connected to nature. Even though they're outside, it doesn't seem like they're really connected to it. Does that make a difference?

DR WELLS: I believe that it does in two different ways, both positively and negatively. I think one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves is to unplug. I believe we need to unplug for an hour a day, completely away from electronic devices. Get your phones off. Get your computers off. Reconnect with nature. Read a book. Do something that allows you to decompress. Meditate. It's wonderful. Yoga, as well, is great. So, in that sense, I do believe that if you're exercising outdoors and you're connected to your device and you're posting pictures on social media, then it's obviously a problem. You're not really benefitting.

On the other hand, we know that music does wonderful things for the brain. So, if you're listening to great music, it can be a stress reliever. It can be really positive for you psychology and for your health as well.

DR MIKE: Listen, I put all that away. As a matter of fact, my friends know that from about 5:30 to 7:30, I'm totally disconnected. I get home from work. I get my dog out. I don't even bring my cell phone. I know that people just thinking about that freaks them out, but I'm sorry. I need that time where I just...My dog deserves my attention, anyway, right? That's what I believe, so I'm like you. I just put all that stuff away. I don't have any music on and that really works well for me.
Tell me a little bit about the book, Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the Best Athletes. Are all these kind of things in your book?

DR WELLS: They are. That was my original book. I have a new book also coming out in the fall called The Performance Code which will have all of the details on this. The first book was just incredible. It was a chance to explore all of these different ideas and the second book will take that even further and have some amazing, practical tips for everybody to check out as well.

DR MIKE: Yes. So, the website is DrGregWells.coms. Are the books available on your site?

DR WELLS: They are and people can connect with me in any way they want. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Sign up for our newsletter and they'll hear about it in any of those ways.

DR MIKE: Well, that's awesome. You are a great guest, Dr. Wells. I appreciate the work that you're doing. I'm definitely going to check out your books and see what else I can add to my regimen. Thanks for coming on.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.