Outdoor exercise supports heart health and more
Dr. West will tell you that exercise is one of the most important preventive measures he can recommend to his patients, but he says it’s one of the hardest things to get them to do.
“We all understand that we need to exercise. The problem is, most exercise we do indoors gets boring after a while,” Dr. West said.
Running on a treadmill or pedalling a stationary bike while staring at unchanging scenery or a TV can be monotonous. For some, this can make exercise feel like drudgery.
Personal histories also play a role. “When I’m dealing with a population that’s largely in their fifties and up and they’ve got a lifestyle of inactivity, to try to get them to change their lifestyle to reduce their chances of cardiac events is really hard—particularly when it’s something that’s not fun,” Dr. West said.
So, what’s his answer? Well, it’s on the other side of the door. “Getting somebody to do exercise consistently is easier when combined with something that does get their interest—something like getting outdoors,” he said.
Beautiful scenery, fresh air, sunshine and distraction from the hard work of exercise can all contribute to a more enjoyable workout. And the bonus, regardless of age, is better heart health, increased respiratory capacity and stamina, endurance, balance, strength and that all-important sense of well-being.
“Being able to be outdoors and do things is just much more rewarding,” Dr. West said.
Dr. West can personally testify to the power of outdoor exercise. He completed his undergraduate degree at Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula, where he developed an appreciation for open spaces. On hikes up Brockway Mountain, he found that nature benefited more than just his physical health.
“At the very top of the mountain, you can see all the way to Isle Royale on a clear day. That is where I would go when I just needed time, when I just needed an opportunity to clear my thoughts,” Dr. West said. “For me, from a mental health standpoint, that or hiking in the woods is what worked.”
Feeling in awe of the natural world has proven to have a positive impact as well.
“Being on top of a mountain is a spiritual experience for me,” Dr. West said. “I feel the vastness of the universe and life when I can be out in open spaces, and looking out at Lake Michigan, walking through a stand of birch or standing on a hill are all really moving to me.”
These experiences all contribute to his wellbeing.
“You can’t separate the mind from the body,” he said. “One of the benefits of getting exercise outdoors is that I touch on all three components—the physical, the emotional and the spiritual aspects of who I am—much more so than standing on a treadmill watching CNN on the TV.”
It’s critically important to have publicly accessible outdoor spaces for people to enjoy these benefits, Dr. West said. That is why he is a supporter of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
“Having accessible outdoor space is really important to me,” Dr. West said. “I really believe people need to understand the value of making this land available to the public, through the work of the Land Conservancy.”
One of Dr. West’s favorite spots is Flower Creek Dunes Nature Preserve in Montague. He used to live in the area and was inspired by how the project gave the community access to a natural landscape he valued.
“To have a place where the public can get access to that, and you don’t have to be a wealthy landowner to have a place like that to recreate, I think is incredible, and that’s one of the reasons I keep donating to the Land Conservancy every year.”
This story appeared in our spring 2020 newsletter. You can read the newsletter in its entirety here.