Spend three hours hiking outside versus walking on a treadmill and you’ll have more energy, a better mood, and less anxiety. Those results published last month in a sports science study from Austria’s University of Innsbruck.
A breath of fresh air on trail is one of life’s greatest pleasures. No traffic in the distance, no recycled air, no buildings. It comes as no surprise so many people prefer exercising outside, but now it’s backed by science as seen in a study published last month in the journal PLOS.
Researchers took three experiences, one hiking in the mountains, one walking on a treadmill, and one sedentary (as a control). Scientists used surveys to evaluate calmness, elation, valence (wellness), activation, fatigue, and anxiety.
The hiking group showed increased levels in almost every category except fatigue and anxiety when compared the sedentary group, and greater arousal and lower fatigue compared to the treadmill walkers.
Hiking Vs. Treadmill: The Study
To find the results, the group completed four questionnaires during the experiment. Each of the 42 participants completed all three activities, with the treadmill set to mimic a hiking experience.
A feeling scale measured valence, or pleasure, and an activation scale measured arousal, or engagement.
Next, a mood survey scale helped distinguish between anxiety, calmness, fatigue, and anger.
Lastly, participants rated their level of Perceived Exertion.
Hike tests took place near the mountainous city of Innsbruck, Austria. Per the study’s instruction, groups of two to three trekked a “brisk without overspending” pace, averaging 3.2 mph.
Before the hike, the group took the first set of assessments. Then, they hiked uphill for roughly 1.5 hours to a hut, ascending 600 meters in elevation.
Once there, the group completed another assessment before another hour-and-a-half hiking along trails and forest roads. At the end, they responded to a final questionnaire.
The treadmill walk mirrored that of the hike, with an incline for the first half, and various speeds throughout.
Findings Show, Get Outside
Not surprisingly, the study found mountain hiking greatly improved results compared to the sedentary group. The treadmill comparison, however, showed mountain hiking has advantages over indoor activity, although not in observed depression, anger, or excitement.
Mountain hiking displayed significantly higher activation, or arousal, and significantly lower fatigue values than treadmill walkers.
Note, the study only compared one form of physical activity, hiking. Of course, other mirrors exist: indoor and outdoor rock climbing, biking, running, and swimming, with testing yet to occur.
The paper cited numerous studies that suggest why being in nature is healthy. From “the visual stimulus of nature [eliciting] positive … responses,” to “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement,” to the environment’s “beneficial effects on well-being.”
We agree, being outside is good for the soul. Research or not, we’ll continue to play outside.