Most of us have had the experience of spending time in nature, camping or hiking for a couple of days, and absolutely dread having to go back to our everyday lives. This, for many, means the city with its concrete sidewalks, high-rise buildings and windows on the 12th floor that barely opens. The only green you see is the sad little tree growing encased in said concrete on the sidewalk or the pot plant on your desk.
You leave your apartment when it’s dark and you get back there when it’s dark. No sunlight all day as you are surrounded by buildings tall enough to keep all of it out. If you're lucky, you can find a little park to eat your lunch. That’s it for outdoor time. A reality for many people all over the world.
Then one weekend you get to escape to the woods for an overnight camping trip with friends. And something strange happens to you. You feel different after a three-hour hike through the heavy forest area. Everything seems clearer and brighter. You feel “light”. You breathe easier and even though you have been carrying a backpack all the way, you feel full of energy. That night you sleep for the first time in what feels like years.
And on a deep level, you realize that this is how you are meant to feel. Always. We are not supposed to live where and how we do. We were meant to be in nature - be “one with nature”.
But the reality is, unfortunately, a little different - and for a lot of us, it’s not entirely realistic to “live in nature”.
What is possible, though, is to spend a little bit of our day outdoors. An hour a day will have a huge impact on your overall health and well-being. Where ever you are, there should be a little space for you somewhere to take a walk, sit on a bench and breath some fresh air. Of course, weather permitting.
You will see and feel the benefits almost instantly. And below we will look at the reasons why:
Being In The Outdoors Relieves Stress
Stress is, unfortunately, a reality of the modern lifestyle. And while you can do much to prevent and control it in your life, it will never be eliminated. And not all stress is bad. It keeps you moving forward, but the modern lifestyle has become such, that everything is a stress.
Your body still responds to stress the same way it has for hundreds of years, by releasing adrenaline and cortisol. The only problem now is that you don’t need to run from anything - which is what these hormones were intended for. All it does is makes you anxious and more stressed (which is normal in good when there is an actual danger). This happens again and again throughout the course of a day. And so your body is in this constant false perception of "danger ready" mode. There is few thing more horrible sick, heavy, feeling in the pit of your stomach all the time from being so stressed.
In addition to a vast array of health problems, these hormones affect the part of the brain that controls fear, motivation and mood… and you can now add sleeping problems, memory and concentration impairment and depression to the list of things that you need try and control or fix. Often the solution comes in pill form, which is a very short term solution with possible long-term consequences on your health.
However, a healthier solution is to spend more time in nature or outdoors. Here you tend to be more active walking, running or swimming. When you move, your body releases endorphins; the feel good hormone. It brings on a natural high, similar to the feelings of pleasure that you get from a drug like Morphine, but of course without all the negative effects attached. Endorphins relieve the stress response and counter those negative consequences. The result is a healthier outlook and attitude, and you will feel much better too.
When you spend time outdoors, your brain in forced to look and pay attention to specific things. This is called “directed attention”, and it forces us to look at certain things and ignore distractions for the large part. This exhaust you brain. But it is a different kind of tired. It is not the same as fatigue. This kind brings on feelings of pleasure, relaxation and healing. As a result and better night’s sleep.
Being Outdoors Improves Mental Health
Although stress is often related to mental health issues, it is not always the case. While being under constant stress might very well at some point turn into a mental health problem, there are many people with very little stress that suffers from mental health conditions.
As mentioned for stress, outdoor activity and exercise releases endorphins and the same rule apply to those with mental health issues; if you get outside and go for a walk endorphins will be released and you’ll feel better.
However, because the problem is different, the so solution is slightly different. If you are stressed, a quick run will make you feel better instantly. You might still worry, but that "tense" feeling might be at bay for a while. To help improve a mental health issue, for example, depression, “green therapy” or “echo therapy” as it has become known, needs to be done consistently and over long time periods. The recommendation is at least 30 minutes every day.
Seeing greenery and beauty will perk you up and getting fresh air, and a bit of sun always make you feel good. And when your body feels good, your mind will too.
Something else to consider is that often, when someone suffers from, for example, depression, they tend to isolate themselves. There has been studies that prove that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking a large number of cigarettes per day. Going outdoors, even if not socialising as such, will get you the person around people or at the very least in a different environment.
Brooding and being cooped up inside by yourself is never a good idea and is not conducive to a healthy outlook on life.
Being Outdoors Improves Physical Health
Spending time outdoors and in nature will increase and improve your physical health. Movement and exercise, whether running, walking, riding a bike or swimming, will make you physically stronger and more fit, improve circulation, balance and coordination.
Fresh air will do wonders for your health. We are holed up indoors so much these days and are constantly breathing in recycled are. People suffer from allergies and asthma. There are dust and contaminants in the air around us all the time. Breathing in clean air will have almost immediate benefits to your health.
In Japan, there are “Shinrin-yoku” which describes “forest bathing” or spending time in a forest. It is believed that inhaling beneficial bacteria, essential oils from plants and negatively charge ions form forest air is what contributes so much to mental (and physical) health.
Then, of course, sunshine. You need Vitamin D and there are many studies out that shows just how severely Vitamin D deficient most people are. There are supplements available, yes, but nothing beats the getting it the good old, as nature intended, kind of way: by being out in the sun.
Some of the reasons vitamin D is so important:
- Fights infections
- Protects against cardiovascular disease
- protects against Autoimmune disease
- supports DNA repair and Metabolic processes
Being Outdoors Improves Improves Concentration
Being in a new environment and seeing and experiencing new things, forces you to focus on specific things right in front of you. You need to pay attention when you climb over the rocks, balance on a log or maybe you have to follow signs on a trail. Are there holes that you might step in, do you hear birdsong that you’ve never heard before, is the weather changing?
You have to concentrate and focus because if you do, you can get hurt, lost or very wet! This is a workout for the brain. A workout in how to concentrate. And the more we train our brain to do something, the better this muscle gets at it.
Being Outdoors Improves Improves Creativity
When you spend time outdoors, you allow your mind to wander and make up stories and details about the things you see and experience. Not always consciously, but it happens anyway. It creates novelty and excitement in your mind.
You start to think with all your senses. Different sounds and smells, different colours and contrast of dark and light. What is around the next bend, did something just jumped in behind the tree, look at that bird… and as your mind wanders around details, it builds stories and develops creative thinking, ready to take back with you.
In the same way, taking your mind off the things you are working on or paying attention to regularly, allows for you to go back with new connections, ideas and perspectives to the same body of work.
Being Outdoors Promotes Better Sleep
We can all do with a little more sleep. You can’t open a magazine these days without reading at least one article on “How to sleep better”. Turn off electronics, dim the lights, take a bath. All good suggestions, but there is something else you can do that will help your sleep.
Spend some time outdoors.
It is estimated that many people are severely “light deficient” from spending so much time indoors. And it impacting heavily on getting a good night's sleep
Light intensity outdoors is around 100 000 lux at noon and indoors only around 200 lux units. So the problem is, you spend all day in not enough light and then at night by artificial light, which now too much light.
This interferes with the natural rhythms of your body. It gets “confused” as to when day and night actually is. It also becomes less sensitive to the change from night to day, as you have the “same” amount of light night and day if you don't spend any time in natural, outdoor light.
You need around 30 - 60 minutes a day of being in the brilliant outdoor light to help set this rhythm to help give you a decent night’s sleep. The best time to be in the outdoor light is around noon but anytime will help more than no exposure at all.
Being Outdoors Improve Eyesight
This part is more true for children, but at the very least will give you another reason to spend more time with the little ones outdoors.
Research have found that being outdoors can help improve vision in children. Spcifically, nearsightedness.
Myopia or nearsightedness is caused by having “longer” eyes and studies indicate the chemicals affected by UV rays might control the length of the eye. A lack of sunlight might make them grow too much. So, the simple solution... add more sunlight.
The theory is that the focusing mechanism of the eye relaxes when it returns to its “normal distance vision” (outdoors) combined with the difference in wavelengths of light natural light outdoors.
Nearsightedness or myopia can run in the family and has also been linked to factors, such as spending a lot of time reading and the level of someone's physical activity. But even if those factors don’t change, just spending more time outdoors could have an impact on eyesight. Keeping in mind that the effects will be in relation to how much time is spend outside. And while it may not fix the problem, studies have found that it can greatly improve it.
These reasons should be enough to get you to swap the afternoon coffee as a pick-you-up for an afternoon walk instead. Good health is waiting for you outdoors.