Healthy exercise in the great outdoors
Moving moments reduce the risk of tumors, lower the rate of infections and strengthen the immune system.
Moderate exercise, as recommended by sport and exercise medicine (SEM) specialists, has a positive effect on both the physical and psychological immune systems. In this interview, Dr Richard Kogelnig, Deputy Medical Director at the Park Igls health retreat, explains how exercising outdoors reduces the risk of tumours, brings infection rates down and strengthens the whole body – inside and out.
Dr Richard Kogelnig: There is a significant amount of scientific evidence for the correlation between health and physical activity. Regular exercise, especially outdoors, brings with it a variety of benefits for both psyche and body functions – above all, metabolism. It considerably improves glucose and fat metabolism. It also stimulates bone metabolism, which has huge benefits for the body’s bone structure, making it more solid and resilient. The number and size of muscle mitochondria – the body’s combustion engines – also increase, resulting in evident benefits to a person’s metabolism, metabolic rate and weight.
Dr Kogelnig: The right amount of exercise stimulates the immune system, as it results in an improvement in natural killer (NK) cell function (see box). Here at the Park Igls health retreat, we also see that people who do moderate, low-intensity endurance training experience a significantly lower number of respiratory infections than people who don’t. Also interesting is the fact that endurance athletes have a 50% lower risk of developing colon cancer. Studies show that cancer is around four times more common in people who are unfit than in those with a high level of fitness. Additional benefits that come with regular outdoor exercise are weight loss and longer life expectancy.
Dr Kogelnig: Scientific studies comparing indoor and outdoor activities have concluded that the difference between running outdoors and running on a treadmill is minor. However, this is based only on biomechanical and biophysical factors such as tendon, muscle and bone stress, and movement sequences. Although the surface conditions are different, there is no significant difference between the biomechanics of running indoors or outdoors. However, it must be noted that the experiential value of exercising in the fresh air, and above all being surrounded by nature, has a unique quality. Visual, acoustic, olfactory and haptic perception – what we see, hear, smell and feel in natural environments – has extremely beneficial effects on how we feel, both physically and psychologically, that cannot be entirely replicated indoors.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF OUTDOOR EXERCISE ON THE IMMUNE SYSTEM?
- Increase in NK cells, which are key to combatting cancerous cells
- Changes in antibodies (immunoglobulins) that are important for fighting viral and bacterial infections. (Antibodies are proteins secreted by B lymphocytes.)
- Increased multiplication of lymphocytes
- Reduced oxidative stress, which has a beneficial effect on genetic material. (Oxidative stress is the excess production of highly reactive oxygen compounds, which can damage cells and, above all, their genomes.)
KILLER T CELLS
are lymphocytes that help to combat cancerous cells and destroy virus-infected cells.
EXERCISE POSITIVE FOR BRAIN AND PSYCHE
Dr Kogelnig: Exercise like mountaineering, mountain running, jogging or walking causes the adrenal medulla to release the stress hormone adrenaline into the bloodstream. This important hormone stimulates an increased conversion of fuel such as sugar and blood lipids or fatty acids. Also, just a few seconds of physical activity are enough to causes a rise in NK cells. These are hugely important in combatting cancerous cells and fighting viruses. Other immunocompetent cells such as monocytes, granulocytes, T and B lymphocytes are also activated.
Dr Kogelnig: Activation of the motor and sensorimotor cortex results in the increased release of dopamine and serotonin. These are mood-lifting neurotransmitters, and their effect is increased by the additional secretion of endorphins – happy hormones – which heighten wellbeing, creating a feeling of happiness. This is reinforced by the aesthetic factors we find in natural surroundings, such as blue skies, majestic mountains, flowering meadows and the sounds of a stream or birdsong.
Dr Kogelnig: It’s the combination of different sensory elements that makes all the difference and has lasting, positive effects on both brain and psyche. Studies confirm that physical activity increases cognitive skills, especially the ability to learn. This is easy to explain: our frontal lobe, the seat of consciousness, is closely linked to the brain’s motor and sensorimotor areas via associative neural pathways.
Dr Kogelnig: During this process, you don’t have the excessive discharge of stress hormones you’d have with a stress reaction; instead, moderate amounts are gradually released, improving physical and psychological functions. The effect of stress hormones is also governed by the idea of the golden mean and moderation.
To what extent does outdoor exercise benefit the musculoskeletal system? Do you have any specific recommendations with regards to back and joint health?
Dr Kogelnig: Essentially, any kind of moderate physical activity has positive effects on health. Warming up the muscles and tendons at the start of any exercise activity is vital. This involves pulse raising and joint mobility exercises as well as stretches. When hiking, mountaineering, running or cycling, it’s advisable to start slowly and progressively increase exertion to an intensity where you can still have a conversation. Hiking is a particularly good activity for the joints and back as it strengthens joints, the spine, tendons, bones and muscles.
Dr Kogelnig: When it comes to physical activity, it’s important to make a thorough assessment of your starting situation: you must discuss any physical restrictions such as a lack of fitness or joint and spine problems with your doctor before you decide what outdoor activity to pursue.
Dr Kogelnig: I love hiking in the mountains. It provides me with excellent cardiovascular and strength training, as I have to carry my body weight up and down considerable changes in elevation. The terrain in the mountains also makes it great coordination and balance training. And let’s not forget the glorious mountain views that have given me so many beautiful and lasting memories.
SUPPORTING STRESS RESISTANCE AND RESILIENCE
Our senses, and therefore our perception, respond positively to natural surroundings. This benefits our ability to regenerate, and increases resilience as well as enhancing the stress resistance of all our physical processes. Outdoor activities are extremely beneficial for the health of our bodies, minds and emotions. They don’t simply prolong life: first and foremost, they improve the quality of life.