It was as I was sitting outside in the park on a rather chilly Wednesday lunchtime, eating a salad while wrapped up a jacket and scarf, that I was inspired to write this post. You see, I have inherited from my mum an overpowering belief that being outdoors is inherently good for you. As a child this ethos saw us sitting on a beach, even in torrential rain, or going out on a country walk, even when it was blowing a gale. And now, the idea of a full day without fresh air (no matter how chilly), or sunlight (no matter how veiled by clouds), just doesn’t sit well with me.
But as I snuggled under my coat, looking up at some rather ominous clouds, I did start to wonder how well founded my beliefs in the advantages of being outside actually are. And, as my colleagues slouch off to the dining room at lunchtime while I brave the questionable British summertime in the park, I started questioning whether I am really doing myself good?
I’ve done a little digging and it seems that there are indeed many benefits to getting yourself outside; and while of course correlation doesn’t always equate to causation, there are enough indicators to suggest that spending time in nature can help both your mental and physical health.
According to a study from the University of Michigan for example, there appears to be a link between time spent outside and greater positivity levels, as well as lower levels of stress and depression. A study from Glasgow University, similarly showed that people who walked, biked, or ran outside had a lower risk of poor mental health than those who worked-out indoors.
If lower stress levels and better mental health wasn’t enough, research conducted at the University of Essex also showed that the perception of effort among cyclists working-out outside was lower than that of those training indoors, (a fact that anyone who has tried to run over 5km on a treadmill will attest to). Moreover, it appeared that those who exercised outside were more eager to return for a future workout than those who chose to stay in the gym.
According to another study, interactions with nature also allow your brain a break from the over-stimulation of everyday life – from your eternally re-filling inbox to the constant hum of social media. Moreover, this break from artificial light and digital stimulation can also have a restorative effect on your attention levels. A study comparing concentration levels among children with ADHD who played outside, versus those who played inside, indicated that those who spent more time in green, outdoor spaces reported fewer symptoms of ADHD, even when the exact same activities were compared.
There is also evidence to suggest that taking a stroll in the park can also increase your creativity, and while walking anywhere, be it through the woods or through a city centre, is deemed beneficial in this regard, it appears that the most novel ideas are associated with time spent in green spaces.
Getting outside for as little as 20 minutes can also wake you up just as much as one cup of coffee, something to keep in mind when overcoming the afternoon slump in the office.
Also interestingly, there appears to be a link between time spent outdoors and immunity levels. Researchers at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School found that women who spent six hours in the woods over the course of two days had increased levels of white blood cells and that this boost lasted at least seven days afterwards.
Sunlight is also essential for vitamin D absorption, helping to defend against osteoporosis.
While all of these factors point towards the benefits of getting outside, the buzz of being out in the fresh air, feeling the sun, wind and rain, laying on the grass or walking in the woods, is reason enough for me to spend time in the great outdoors.