Steven Stovitz, MD, a family medicine physician with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), has spent much of his career caring for patients and researching how medicine can continue to improve patients’ lives.
In addition to studying the benefits of cardiovascular fitness early in his career, Dr. Stovitz now focuses on researching how to improve medical research methods to help scientists and clinicians gain a clearer picture of what they study.
“I am interested in improving the science of how we can best gather, interpret and communicate evidence,” he says, emphasizing how “it’s for the purpose of improving the lives of our patients.”
That lends him a unique perspective on helping others understand how and why spending time and doing activities outdoors can benefit physical and mental health.
What’s the science?
Dr. Stovitz explains that when it comes to leisure time, there are many studies that show people who spend more time outdoors have better physical and mental health than those who do not.
That’s where his expertise in research methods comes in, though, because he says there may be factors at play that complicate our understanding of why that is.
“There are a few randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that show statistically significant benefits, but also many which do not. So, if RCTs are your sole measure of science, you’ll be disappointed,” he explains.
At the same time, drawing on his research in cardiovascular fitness, Dr. Stovitz emphasizes that physical activities are beneficial for cardiovascular health, and he adds that evidence shows that people tend to adhere to outdoor exercise better than to indoor exercise, such as simply going to the gym.
Research on how outdoor exercise helps mental health versus indoor exercise, according to Dr. Stovitz, is still in the works. He anticipates that kind of research to grow significantly in the coming years.
What he says is clear about outdoor activities, though, is that they tend to be more amenable to time socializing with friends, family and others. Plus, it tends to get people off of their screens. The in-person socializing combined with less time on screens may provide additional benefits for mental health.
Taking Advantage of Outdoor Activities
While researchers are still working on understanding the specifics of how and why engaging in activities outdoors is beneficial for our health, Dr. Stovitz says it’s worth getting involved in them now, especially as Minnesota’s summer season is in full bloom.
“For able bodied individuals, these activities would ideally involve movement.”
Dr. Stovitz himself tends to reach for his bicycle, go for walks, play a round of beach volleyball or get his hands in the garden.
“Others may enjoy running, rowing or rollerblading,” he says, adding, “I think that there is a special benefit from active commuting to work such as bicycling or walking because these activities serve the dual function of adding exercise and removing the sedentary time of sitting in a car.”
When it comes to the question about what kinds of warm-weather activities are most beneficial for someone’s physical or mental health, though, Dr. Stovitz has an answer simpler than much of the research he and his colleagues do, and it’s easy to understand why:
“They’re those which a person enjoys.”
So take time to get outside, Minnesota. What’s clear is that your body and mind will thank you.