Why going outside is superior to logging hours at the gym

The Swiss are happy for many reasons, not the least because they participate in a wide variety of both individual and team sports, especially outdoors.  Find out how this obsession for outdoor exertion has impacted Swiss social life, health and happiness.


A family hike is a common sight on weekends in Switzerland.


The Swiss tote their young up mountain trails beginning at birth and those children return on skis as toddlers. Businessmen, impeccably dressed in suits and ties, carry snowboards over their shoulders to work. Elderly, white-haired hiking groups are a common sight on steep, mountain treks and even public playgrounds feature rock climbing walls and treacherous balance beams. It is as if being active is a prerequisite to being Swiss, which may have something to do with why they are some of the happiest (and healthiest) people in the world.


It has been proven many times over that exercise boosts one’s mood, but researchers are still studying why and how this process occurs. We know that moving your body releases feel-good endorphins; moreover, serotonin and dopamine circulate in the body for up to two hours after working out, according to a 1999 study. Some research suggests that exercise gives one a higher sense of self-worth through “goal attainment,” while other studies argue that it serves as diversion from negative thoughts. One study found that exercise was as effective as taking the antidepressant medication Zoloft.


More recent research proposes that exercise makes us feel happy because it generates new neurons in the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with emotions, learning and memories. Overall, the message is the same: Moving makes you happy.


Snow-shoeing is a popular way to keep exercising in the colder months in Switzerland — and a good way to boost one’s mood.


“There are hundreds of papers on this topic that date back decades and decades, so it’s difficult to sum up all of the nitty-gritty details—but the point is that exercise impacts your brain both in the moment and structurally over time,” says Art Kramer, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University. He added “The general consensus is that a multitude of beneficial and chronic changes for a healthier brain and mind can happen if you exercise for an hour a day, three days a week.”


It seems that the difference between being just a happy active person and a “joyful” active person is the location of where you exercise. Logging hours at the gym running on the treadmill is not as effective as walking in the park when it comes to measuring contentment, according to a study from the University of California, San Diego.


“Nothing makes you feel more childlike than being outdoors,” says Dr. Pamela Peeke, author of the book Fit to Live. “You’re modulating stress hormones, increasing endorphins and increasing the secretion of serotonin,” she says.


It should come as no surprise that Switzerland is one of just five countries in the world where citizens prefer to exercise outside than inside, according to Bloomberg’s Global Health Index.


“The healthiest countries have a variety of traditional indoor and outdoor exercise activist options, but to add to this they also maximize the movement in everyday activities such as walking to the store, working in a garden, riding a bike to work, and family strolls just for fun,” according to the study’s authors.


These yellow markers dot Swiss hiking trails.


The average Swiss citizen spends roughly 60 hours per year hiking and nearly half of Switzerland’s population identifies as “active hikers,” meaning that they hike more than three hours per week, on average, according to the latest government statistics. More than half of Switzerland’s roads are country lanes or forested paths exclusively for walking or cycling; Article 88 of the Swiss constitution requires that such trails be kept in good, safe condition.


Their commitment to green space pays off– more than $2.5 billion is generated in hiking tourism alone – but also in the health of Swiss citizens, because when people exercise outside they tend to engage in 30 minutes more, on average, according to a review of exercise studies. “Enjoyment is an important pathway to the mental health impacts of physical activity,” says Rebecca Lovell, a fellow at the University of Exeter. Spending even as little as 20 minutes in a park is enough to improve one’s well-being.


“You relax and reduce stress, and then you feel more happy,” writes study co-author Hon Yuen of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, adding that it is not even important to be “rigorous in terms of exercise.”


That said, Switzerland is also home to some of the most extreme sports in the world.


Interlaken is the paragliding capital of the world, where it can be done 365 days a year.


“Due to the proximity of mountains, rivers and lakes you have the chance to do any kind of sport, especially extreme ones… skydiving, paragliding, canyoning, bungy jumping, hang gliding, rafting, base jumping, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, kiting, hiking and more,” says Frank “Dimi” Dimke, an employee of Paragliding Interlaken. The central Swiss city is considered the paragliding capital of the world and the company welcomes amateur paragliders from the age of five to 90 years old.


“[W]ith the easy access to nature people tend to spend more time exploring nature and doing more sports outdoors,” says Dimke. He, like many of the company’s employees visited Switzerland to try one extreme sport or another and ended up staying. He said he has chosen to call Switzerland home for now because of the easy lifestyle, nature and the kindness of Swiss people.


“There are not a lot of places in the world that have such spectacular views and nature,” Dimke said, adding that even large Swiss cities “seem to run at a different pace” than the rest of the world.


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