Research shows that exercising in green spaces (a.k.a. outside) improves our mood, attention span, and mental health significantly more than exercising indoors. Being surrounded by nature restores our cognitive ability to focus on a single task without getting distracted, which is one reason it feels so good. Attention is an essential mental resource as we navigate the constant overstimulation of our online lives. But what about our social lives, IRL? Research suggests that exercising outside improves social experiences too.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the impact of being outdoors on our social experience of exercise. More specifically, how does a green environment affect the social dynamic when two people work out together?
Naturally, the participants, who ranged from 18 to 73 years old, signed up for the study in pairs. Researchers wanted participants to be paired up with a friend, family member, or romantic partner in order to give the study real-world authenticity (or “ecological validity,” in science terms). People typically exercise with someone they know and not a complete stranger.
All participants (24 pairs total) rode a stationary bike next to their partner for fifteen minutes at roughly fifty percent of their maximum heart rate, calculated by age. Half of the pairs completed this exercise outdoors with a view of an open green field in front of them. The other half rode their bikes in a laboratory setting, staring at a plain white brick wall. Before starting the workout, researchers told the participants, “please feel free to talk as much or as little as you like.”
A researcher sitting behind the participants kept track of how much time they spent chatting with a stopwatch. As predicted, social interaction time was significantly greater among the pairs that exercised outdoors rather than in the lab.
Why does the amount of time spent socializing during exercise matter? Well, researchers also measured if social interaction positively influenced participants’ intentions for future exercise. Sure enough, pairs who exercised outdoors and spent more time chatting had positive feelings about working out in the future. This finding was not supported among those who exercised in the lab.
According to the researchers, these results suggest that “green exercise settings may facilitate more meaningful social interaction during exercise.” Furthermore, exercising outdoors with a partner has the power to positively influence future behavior via a ripple effect. When we head outside to work out with a buddy, we are more likely to end up socializing and enjoying ourselves. This meaningful social experience creates positive associations with exercise, leaving us motivated to get back out there and tackle the next workout.
The bottom line: Exercising outside is good for our social lives, which is good for us.