Eating, drinking, and board games are big in my family on Christmas Day. Apparently, this isn’t unusual: 50% of Britons gobble up double their recommended calorie intake on 25th December (alcohol often tipping the calorie balance), and 75% sit down to play at least one board game. In my experience, neither of these things encourages festive peace and goodwill. Apparently, ‘Monopoly’ is the likeliest game to spark a Christmas Day row, and I would hazard a guess that this probability increases in direct proportion to the number of glasses of [insert drink of your choice] consumed.
So, anyone for an orange juice and a game of Snakes and Ladders? Hmmm.
Monopoly and calories have more in common. First, the phrase ‘Get out of jail free’ seems applicable to both Monopoly’s Community Chest and to the justification we use to warrant consuming anything and everything in the house on Christmas Day simply because, well, because it’s Christmas Day (free calories, right?). Second, both activities are generally undertaken whilst sitting indoors.
So what does this mean? (I will get to my point eventually – this blog was/is supposed to be about outdoor exercise!).
Essentially, this means that on Christmas Day we Brits tend to eat, argue, and remain inactive on the sofa in excessive amounts. Often, the good intention to set out on a post-lunch walk is overridden by bad weather, feeling ‘too full’, a long-drawn-out game of Monopoly, a family argument…
Granted, it’s Christmas Day. But ask yourself: How long do your Christmas ‘Get out of jail free’ excuses last for? And what if that foray outside your front door was just what you needed?
Increasingly, research is showing that outdoor physical activity has significant advantages in comparison to no exercise (well yes, Captain Obvious) but also to exercising indoors. First there’s the psychological benefits. Recent studies1 have involved volunteers completing two walks of the same time or distance, one inside (usually on a treadmill) and one outside in the fresh air and natural scenery. In virtually all of the studies, the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more. Further, volunteers scored higher on measures of vitality, pleasure, enthusiasm, and self-esteem, and lower on measures of tension, depression, and fatigue, after walking outside. A study with older adults2 additionally revealed that volunteers who exercised outside were more likely to exercise longer and more frequently (on average, 30-minutes more per week) than those who exercised indoors. The physiological link between outdoor exercise and the dispositional and motivational benefits outlined is currently unclear. However, some studies3 have found that following outdoor exercise, individuals have lower blood levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, than those who have exercised indoors.
Second, there are distinctive physiological benefits to exercising outdoors. For one thing, even subtle changes in wind resistance and terrain tend to make outdoor exercise more strenuous. Studies comparing the exertion of running outside with running on a treadmill4 have found that outdoor runners expend more energy to cover the same distance. This same pattern is mirrored in cycling, where wind drag demands higher energy expenditure when cycling outside for 25-miles, compared with riding the same distance on a stationary exercise bike5.
Collectively, the research take-home point seems to be that exercising outside can (a) improve our mood and (b) burn off our Christmas dinner more quickly. So, arguably, another link between Monopoly stresses and festive calories?
As a final thought, what also strikes me is that the research suggests that you don’t have to walk (or even run!) any great distance to experience the psychological benefits of outdoor exercise. Incorporating a brisk 30-minute walk (to the shops, to see a friend, with your dog) into day-to-day activities can be planned easily; is free and accessible; and, it seems, can be highly beneficial should you have just landed on Mayfair three times running, or have over-indulged this Christmas!
1. Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M. H. (2011). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental Science and Technology, 45 (5), 1761-1772.
2. Kerr, J., Sallis, J. F., Saelens, B. E., Cain, K. L., Conway, T. L., Frank, L. D., & King, A. C. (2012). Outdoor physical activity and self rated health in older adults living in two regions of the U.S. The International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9, 4615-4625.
3. Logan, A. C., Selhub, E. M. (2012). Vis medicatrix naturae: Does nature ‘minister to the mind’? Biopsychosocial Medicine, 6 (11), 1751-1759.
4. Jones, A. M., & Doust, J. H. (1996). A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. Journal of Sports Sciences, 14 (4), 321-327.
5. Jobson, S. A., Nevill, A. M., Palmer, G. S., Jeukendrup, A. E., Doherty, M., Atkinson, G. (2007). The ecological validity of laboratory cycling: Does body size explain the difference between laboratory- and field-based cycling performance? Journal of Sports Sciences, 25 (1), 3-9.