Mental Health Benefits of Being Outdoors
Between social distancing, working from home, and other precautions to keep you and your loved ones safe, you’ve been a shut-in all week.
Despite gorgeous summer weather, you spent your evenings and weekend indoors. You binge-watched shows, racked up screen time on social media, scanned for politically charged articles, and mindlessly whiled away the hours crushing candy.
Then when Monday morning rolled around and you logged in to work, your motivation was nonexistent, and your energy at an all-time low.
After hours of staring blankly at a computer screen, you finally hit your breaking point. Deadlines be damned, you had to be outside.
Maybe you laced up your trail running shoes, threw your mountain bike in the bed of your truck, strapped a kayak to the roof of your car, or just drove to your favorite nature preserve and started walking.
Whatever you wound up doing, in 20 minutes you started to feel better. Your mood improved, creative ideas flowed more freely, you found a solution to a problem you’d been struggling with all morning. And when you got back to your computer, you were a completely different (and more productive) person.
If this describes a recent experience of yours, it’s no accident. In fact, there is mounting evidence to support the power of fresh air.
So, the next time you find yourself in a rut, don’t feel guilty about taking a break. The mental health benefits of exercising outside are backed by actual science. Still not convinced? Read on.
4 Reasons Why Going Outside is Good for You
1. Being in Nature Improves Your Mood
Citing a 2015 study, Harvard Health Publishing wrote that time spent in nature led to “…lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.”
The article goes on to say that “calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body's fight-or-flight response.”
In non-clinical speak, we’re talking about chirping birds, a babbling brook, waves gently rolling onto a sandy shore, the crunching of leaves beneath your feet…you know, the general awesomeness of being in nature.
This doesn’t mean you should sell your place and move into a backwoods shack. According to the article, all you need is 20 to 30 minutes, three days per week in any spot that is quiet and free of urban stimulation.
For even better results, plan a couple of summer and fall camping trips over three-day weekends.
2. Being in Nature Benefits You Physically, Too
Referencing a study publishing in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, Time Magazine wrote that spending time in green spaces (including city parks) has been shown to “…lower stress, blood pressure, and heart rate while encouraging physical activity and buoying mood and mental health.”
Other research points to an increase in white blood cell function, which can help boost immunity and fight infection.
The health benefits of nature are so profound, in fact, that doctors are starting to write “nature prescriptions” as part of their treatment plans. Imagine, instead of opening the door to your medicine cabinet to reach for some pills, you get to open a cabin door or unzip a tent to venture outside!
3. Time Outdoors Can Help Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
One of the pitfalls of modern living is the ever-presence of artificial light. This is because artificial light (including light emitted by smartphone screens and TVs) can negatively affect our “circadian rhythms,” which help govern our natural sleep-wake cycles.
As WebMD suggests, a week spent camping has been shown to “…reset the body's ‘clock’ to be more in tune with nature's light-and-dark cycle. The result was longer sleep.”
These findings were echoed in a Time Magazine article, which said that “…people’s internal clocks were delayed by two hours in their modern environment—which isn’t a good thing, since an out-of-whack sleep cycle has been linked to health problems like sleepiness, mood problems and a higher risk of being overweight. But they were able to recalibrate after a week in nature.”
Don’t have time for a week in the woods? Simply being outdoors can help you sleep, particularly as you age. According to Stanford Medicine, “…males and females 65 and over found nature to be a potent sleep aid.” They added that “If there is a way for persons over 65 to spend time in nature, it would improve the quality of their sleep--and their quality of life…”
4. Exercise Lowers Your Blood Pressure
As the previous examples help illustrate, a nice, long sit at your favorite scenic overlook will do you a lot of good when you're stressed. As it turns out, the brisk hike up to the overlook is just as important.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, exercise leads to a stronger heart, which can pump more blood with less effort. They add that “…40 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week may lower your blood pressure as much as some medications do.”
If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, start by getting outside and moving.