When it comes to fitting in daily movement, there’s not much that can beat walking. It’s an accessible, adaptable, and equipment-free activity that can be squeezed into even the busiest schedules. And while getting outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight has a ton of unmatched benefits, sometimes hopping on a treadmill or walking pad is more manageable, especially in bad weather.

But knowing how walking on a treadmill might compare to logging steps in the great outdoors can help you make the most of your walks. There are pros and cons to both settings, which can advise you when trying to choose between them or can serve as motivation for getting your steps in, no matter where you are. Walking has many benefits beyond the physical, according to Juliet Rodriguez, a Life Time Oakbrook Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist. “As we know, walking, in general, offers many benefits beyond cardiovascular health; things like mood and cognitive function, coordination and balance, can improve,” she says. 

Benefits of Walking Outside

Taking your walks outdoors adds variety, fresh air, sunlight, and multiple benefits for your physical and mental health. Here’s a breakdown of the big plusses:

Muscular Engagement, Balance, and Coordination

It’s no surprise that walking outdoors comes with several extra advantages beyond the physical, but there are unique benefits for your body that come with natural terrain. “No two steps are exactly the same, especially on a trail versus on a road or sidewalk; you get slightly different muscles engaged, which can help reduce overuse injuries, and you may even engage more muscle groups outdoors versus a treadmill,” explains Dr. Theresa Shoemaker, a physical therapist with Teton Therapy in Wyoming.

Several research studies back this up: Walking on uneven and complex surface conditions provides unique challenges that boost coordination, muscular strength, balance, and quality of life, helping build the motor skills that prevent falls in your later years.

Heads Up!

Walking outside on uneven terrain can create discomfort if you are not used to walking on cement or uneven ground, according to Rodriguez. Starting with short walks and adapting to your environment will be the easiest way to work up to longer walks without discomfort. “Make sure you have the right pair of shoes for outdoor walking versus a treadmill,” says Rodriguez.

Mental, Emotional, and Cognitive Effects

“While there are many physical benefits, many people forget about the mental and emotional support walking can provide for you, gaining clarity in your mind and reducing external stress such as work, family, and friend drama,” says Jen Rulon, MS, a triathlon coach and 15-time triathlete.

Plenty of research shows that being in outdoor environments, especially green and blue (moving water) spaces, lowers stress levels, boosts mood, positivity, and working memory, reduces anxiety, increases feelings of calmness and creativity, and helps give your brain a much-needed break. “Just by the change in environment, you release endorphins — chemicals that enhance your mood and even release stress,” says Rodriguez. Researchers also believe the feel-good hormone oxytocin is behind these effects, as it promotes feelings of safety, calmness, and peace.

Walking outside is also a great way to connect with a community or friends. “Walking around your neighborhood could create a better feeling of community as you meet people on your walks, especially with remote work limiting face-to-face social interactions,” Rodriguez explains. Rulon suggests instead of meeting for coffee or lunch, meet your friends or date at a park or a beach nearby to get some steps in and connect.

Sunlight Exposure

Sunny environments stimulate Vitamin D production in the body, which has a host of health benefits. “There is a beautiful correlation between natural sunlight and sleeping better — when a person wakes up with the sun and “shuts down” as the sun sets, the body is on a natural circadian rhythm,” says Rulon.

Your circadian rhythm is like your body’s internal clock that regulates your sleep and wake cycles. It’s highly sensitive to light exposure, with natural, bright light boosting wakefulness and setting you up for a restful sleep later. Walking in the sun, especially in the morning, is an excellent way to support your natural rhythms and sleep quality.

Vitamin D has several other crucial functions in the body. It is essential for the normal growth and development of bones and contributes to overall health, helping to prevent disease and boosting immune system function.

Disadvantages of Walking Outside

Despite the advantages of venturing outside your four walls, there are some cons to be aware of when walking outdoors.

For one, access to the outdoors or safe walking spaces can be limited, especially in the absence of sidewalks or during icy conditions. “The most complex challenge is if you live in a cold weather environment, whether it is snowing, windy, or rainy, the opportunities to get outside for a walk may be more challenging,” says Rulon. Plus, in the winter, when the nights are long and days darken early, walking outdoors can be hazardous.

Things like the environment, crime rates, wildlife, and other threats can make outdoor walking less safe. In these cases, bringing a friend along for safety can be a wise choice.

Overcoming Outdoor Walking Challenges

  • Walk earlier when the sun comes up before your work day starts to avoid walking in the dark.
  • Use reflective gear and lights to ensure better visibility.
  • Bundle up with warmer clothes, gloves, scarves, and beanies. Plan to wear layers; as Rulon points out, you can heat up by 10 degrees while walking. “Once you get moving, the body will warm up, and you may start taking off layers,” she says.
  • Yaktraks or spikes on shoes to prevent slips, according to Shoemaker. “Walkers can also use a walking stick if unsteady,” she adds.
  • Wear sunscreen and moisture-wicking materials in warm weather, and focus on hydration.
  • Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.
  • Stick to well-lit and populated areas. Rodriguez recommends public tracks.

Benefits of Walking On a Treadmill

Treadmills offer a convenient alternative to outdoor walks but also have their own unique advantages to consider.

Convenience and Accessibility

When colder, darker, or rainier weather threatens your step count, the treadmill is at the rescue. “The beauty of going to the gym or using a treadmill is that you have no excuse; you can’t complain that it is too cold or dark, you can get on the treadmill when that gym opens, and if you have a treadmill at home, or after the kids go to bed.

Shoemaker points out another bonus: You can multitask more efficiently. While not necessarily ideal, if you have a super busy schedule, walking on a treadmill can allow you to check a few more things off your to-do list, such as a meeting, an important call, or catching up on some reading material for work. Although not necessarily the most stress-reducing way to use your walking time, it can mean the difference between being sedentary or obtaining the benefits of activity and may boost your focus and energy at the same time.

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