Walking Outdoors Is Better for Cognition Than Indoors, Per Study

During the COVID-19 pandemic when health clubs and studios were temporarily closed, some operators began offering outdoor exercise. Some still do, citing enjoyment by members.

Now, club and studio owners have another reason to continue offering outdoor exercise: it might be even more beneficial to members’ cognition than exercising indoors.

A study of 30 college students at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, that focused on the benefits of walking indoors vs. outdoors found that 15-minute outdoor walks improved concentration and memory more than 15-minute indoor walks did.

The researchers had study participants walk indoors and outdoors on alternate days and then gave them cognitive tests using electroencephalography, which measures electrical activity in different parts of the brain.

Walking outdoors enhanced cognition and reaction times but indoor walking did not. In addition, cognitive attentional scores increased to a greater extent after walking outdoors than after walking indoors.

The study did not look at the impact of doing other forms of exercise outdoors, such as jogging, strength training or HIIT.

“Given the continued growth in urbanization and a move to an indoor lifestyle, our results highlight the importance of spending time in nature, especially when exercising,” the authors wrote. “Indeed, in a world where many people ‘hit the gym’ before or after work or on their lunch break, our results suggest that these people would be better served by simply ‘getting outside.’”

However, the study, “Exercising is good for the brain but exercising outside is potentially better,” noted that any exercise is good for people.

And as the Washington Post pointed out, certain outdoor environments may provide more benefits than others. Past research published in 2022 showed that exercisers received greater mental health benefits when walking in green environments than they received when walking in downtowns and commercial districts where there was less nature.