I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.
– John Burroughs (1837-1921)
Jon Burroughs, one of America’s greatest naturalists and essayists, may have been speaking more than a century ago, but his words have since been proven time and time again by science since.
The health benefits of spending time outdoors are abundant and far-reaching, both for the body and the mind, as well he knew.
Yet, with the convenience of modern life has come downsides that John Burroughs could not have foreseen: many of us working in full-time desk jobs, staring at computer screens; our leisure time spent gazing at televisions, tablets, and smartphones, or playing video games, and our reliance on cars rather than our legs to get around.
Our Changing Relationship with the Outdoors
It is really only in the last century or so in the history of mankind that the majority of working people have headed indoors.
Before the industrial revolution, many more people would have been engaged in working on the land in some form, and nearly everybody would have spent more time outdoors.
While some of us now seek the outdoors for leisurely pursuits such as hiking, skiing, cycling and running, many more of us are getting our kicks indoors through film, television and video games.
Alongside this drastic change in the human way of life, modern health issues have arisen such as increasing rates of depression, obesity, diabetes and many others.
Science and the Outdoors
Most of us who often spend time enjoying the outdoors have a feeling that it is good for us, which is one of the reasons we regularly head back out when we get a chance.
Everyday expressions such as like a breath of fresh air, or getting out to blow the cobwebs away also reflect this idea that the outdoors have a medicinal effect.
It has never been more important for all generations to actively re-engage with the outdoors, yet it doesn’t seem like many of us currently understand why.
But there is science behind this feeling; the hunch has been proven.
In universities and labs across the globe, teams of scientists are continually gathering evidence of the goodness of fresh air in the hope that their findings may help shape a healthier population.
The types of research into the benefit of spending time outdoors has varied enormously; it has been examined in relation to many types of medicine, such as:
- And even how it can affect eyesight.
The effects it may have on different types of people have also been researched — children, the elderly, the sick, urban dwellers, and those already living a rural lifestyle.
The results are fascinating.
Plenty of recent studies have uncovered many serious reasons why we need to be reversing some of our lifestyle changes and getting back outside as much as possible.
The benefits are wide-ranging for both physical and mental health.
Yet, it is with much irony that while science is providing more and more evidence that we need to be heading to the great outdoors, more and more people are turning their backs on it completely.
Benefits of Spending Time Outdoors
Here are 16 fully researched and scientifically based reasons to get yourselves, your family, and your friends off the couch and out the door:
It May Lengthen Our Lives
There is probably no greater argument for enjoying the outdoors than this: it may add years to our lives.
A recent study of women in the USA looked at the correlation between mortality rates and the proportion of green space around a person’s home.
It looked at the benefits of living in a rural area, as well as greener urban areas and found that “those living in the highest quintile of satellite-measured green vegetation around their home had a lower mortality rate when compared to those living in the lowest quintile of greenness.”
So the greener our everyday surroundings are, the more our health benefits there are to be had, it would seem.
Researchers believe that “the association between greenness and mortality was explained primarily by improving mental health and increasing social engagement, as well as by lowering air pollution exposure and increasing physical activity.”
Heading out to parks and open spaces means that we socialize more, get more exercise, and breathe in the better air — all things which have a positive impact on our health.
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Being Near Nature is Especially Good for Children
A similar study that looked into the relationship between local green space and morbidity found that the benefits of living close to nature were particularly strong for children.
Significant relationships between a lower number of childhood complaints of vertigo and severe stomach complaints were found and were particularly strong for childhood depression.
This was thought to be because children are more likely to stay close to home in their daily lives than other groups, so they more strongly feel the benefits of local pockets of green.
Walking to school through a park or spending plenty of time in the backyard could be really beneficial for a child’s overall health.
Heading Outdoors Helps Activity Levels
While there is no guarantee that being outside will automatically improve your activity levels, particularly if you head straight for a sun-lounger, most people are more likely to be moving if they are outside.
This is particularly true for children.
Children are leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
A recent report by Common Sense Media suggested that children as young as nine are averaging two hours a day of screen time.
This goes a long way in explaining increases in rates of childhood obesity and other health issues.
Time spent playing games in the backyard, engaging in sports, cycling and running around would be far more beneficial for a child’s long-term health than screen time.
Sunshine is Vital for Essential Vitamin D Production
When the skin is exposed to sunlight, a reaction begins that means vitamin D production is taking place inside the human body.
This vitamin is essential for healthy tissues, skin, and bones; it helps to manage insulin production and protect against diabetes; it supports cardiovascular and lung health, and provides many other benefits to human health.
While vitamin D can be obtained from our diet or from a food supplement, the main source of it should be from sensible exposure to sunlight.
Long periods of deficiency in vitamin D can result in obesity, diabetes, hypertension and many other ailments.
The amount of outdoor time needed to produce adequate vitamin D levels varies enormously, depending on where in the world you live, the time of year, and your skin tone.
But for example, if you live in a cooler part of the world, you should aim to be outside daily without sunscreen for short periods, with the face, hands, and forearms uncovered where possible.
It is never necessary to burn your skin to get enough vitamin D, and as per usual advice, steps should be taken to avoid sunburn.
Natural Light Aids Healing
Most of us prefer natural light over fluorescent, and there may be a scientific reason why.
Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh compared recovery rates of patients in different areas of a hospital and found that the recovery process for spinal surgery patients was aided by exposure to greater exposure to natural light.
Patients reported less pain and took fewer pain medications than those recovering in dimmer areas of the hospital.
This would suggest that exposure to sunlight may aid healing or be beneficial for pain levels and that getting outside may have some medicinal purpose.
Time Spent Amidst Nature Helps Concentration
Scientists have been studying the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle for a long time.
A 1991 study involving researchers from the University of California showed the restorative effects of a nature walk by comparing scores in a proofreading task that demanded much concentration.
Those who had spent time in nature scored better than the groups who took part in alternatives, such as indoor relaxation.
This suggests that time in nature allows the brain to rest and recuperate better than other forms of indoor relaxation.
Since then, scientists have continued to look for further restorative benefits to spending time in natural environments.
Walking in Nature Helps Beat Depression
Many of us report feeling more cheerful after a stroll in the fresh air, and the evidence for this is far from anecdotal.
A 2012 study looked at mood levels of adults with a major depressive disorder (MDD), comparing those that took a walk in nature with those who took an urban walk.
Until this time, it was not clear whether walking alone in an isolated environment may worsen mood levels through more plentiful opportunities for reflection and rumination.
Scientists had wondered whether walking in a less isolated environment may be better suited to those with an MDD.
However, the opposite was found: participants showed greater increases in mood levels from walking in nature and the study concluded that “interacting with nature may be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for MDD.”
So not only does walking in nature benefit healthy adults, but also those suffering from depression.
Walking Outdoors May Improve Memory Function
A 2008 study looked at memory performance before and after a walk outdoors.
One group of individuals was sent on an urban stroll, whereas the other was sent to a more natural environment.
In both groups, each individual’s ability to repeat a series of random numbers in reverse was tested before and after the walk.
While the urban group showed no consistent improvement after their walk, the nature group showed an improvement of around 20%.
A plausible theory for why this might be the case is that our urban environment is littered with stimulation such as light, noise, color, conversation, as well as potential dangers such as moving vehicles.
This urban bombardment of stimulation may mean the walk does not have the same restorative effect that a walk in nature may have, where colors, noise, light, and other stimuli are all far more muted.
Walking in nature can better clear our minds to be ready for more information.
Awe in Nature Promotes Positive Personality Traits
Taking time out to watch the sunset, or visit a local beauty spot, may feel selfish when we are busy with work or family.
However, scientists have shown the opposite to be true: those of us who marvel at nature are giving the selfless side of our personalities a boost.
A recent study from Stamford University showed this and other significant benefits from immersing ourselves in nature.
It looked at the psychological benefits of experiencing awe, or in other words, a feeling of simultaneous fear and wonder that comes from witnessing something vast in scale, complexity or beauty.
This experience asks us to alter our perception of the world around us.
The study acknowledges that one of the easiest ways to experience awe is to immerse oneself in nature.
A mountainous or coastal landscape, the intricate beauty of a floral garden, or an incredible sunset are all examples of the way nature can bring people to feel a sense of wonderment.
The study concluded that those who experienced this awe had a better sense of well-being generally and showed greater life satisfaction, showed less materialism, were more patient and had more time to give to others.
Simply put, nature can nurture the best sides of us.
Nature Promotes Creativity
A 2012 study titled Creativity in the Wild looked at the effects of four days of being immersed in nature, away from all modern technology.
The mixed-age, mixed-gender group produced startling results.
Participants in the study were given a higher order creative problem-solving task known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT).
A sample was taken before a four-day hike through the wilderness in states such as Colorado or Alaska.
Access to electronic technology was forbidden during this time.
At the end of the hike, all participants took the RAT and a staggering 50% increase in performance was shown over the pre-hike sample.
While few of us can regularly spare four days to immerse ourselves fully, the results do show that “there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting,” and that we would benefit by spending more time in a natural setting, away from electronic gadgetry.
At the very least, even a lunchtime walk in the park may boost brain power.
Outdoor Exercise May be Better for Childhood Eyesight
The benefits of physical exercise for human health are widely known and well documented.
Children should get involved in physical activity at an early age and parents should find out how to encourage children to play sports.
But are there even greater benefits to children exercising outdoors compared to indoors? It seems so.
A group of 2,000 Australian children was studied over a period of two years to look at incidences of myopia (nearsightedness).
At the end of the 2012 study, the children who had exercised outdoors fared better in tests for myopia, and as a result, it has been suggested that outdoor exercise may be used as a strategy for halting the progression of the condition.
It found that children who spent a large amount of time outdoors had a far lower chance of developing myopia.
The children with similar activity levels but who had exercised indoors had a higher prevalence of the condition, suggesting it was more connected with the environment than the amount of physical activity.
Running is More Beneficial Outside
Lots of us prefer the convenience of an indoor treadmill thanks to long working hours, or to avoid cold, dark winters or summer heat.
However, there is plenty of evidence that suggests we should ditch the running machine, and that there are far more benefits to be had from running outside.
Sports scientists have shown that running on a treadmill at 0% gradient does not expend as much of a runner’s energy as an equivalent time or distance would if completed outside.
And while this can be compensated by flicking up the gradient a notch on the treadmill, there are further downsides to running inside.
The muscle movements used when running downhill are not replicated on a treadmill, meaning an outdoor run is a better all-around workout.
So is Cycling!
Similarly, the beneficial exercise effects of wind drag for cyclists cannot be replicated on a gym bike.
Wind drag causes greater energy demands on a cyclist, meaning a more intense workout.
A short workout on a road bike will nearly always be more beneficial, according to scientists.
Spending Time in Forests is Good for Our Immune Systems
You may now be wondering if there is a specific type of nature where you can spend time that is the pinnacle of healthy living.
Beach, park or forest? Science may have found the answer.
Shinrinyoku is a Japanese concept that roughly translates as forest bathing.
It involves a short immersive trip to a forest, perhaps for around two days and nights, for relaxation and recreation and to breathe in the natural wood aromas (phytoncides).
Research published in 2010 looked at the benefits of such a trip to the human immune system by measuring the activities of natural killer cells, which our bodies produce to release anti-cancer proteins such as perforin.
Findings indicated that “forest bathing trips increase NK activity, which was mediated by increases in the number of NK cells and the levels of intracellular anti-cancer proteins.”
In other words, that time spent in the forest may help our bodies ward off cancer.
It seems that breathing in fresh, forest air may be enormously beneficial for our long-term health.
The same study showed that the beneficial effects of the shinrinyoku last around 30 days.
Forests are Also Good for Stress Levels…
The same study also examined the stress levels of participants by measuring the stress hormone cortisol present in the bloodstream during shinrinyoku.
It comfortably concluded that “forest bathing trips were found to significantly increase the score for vigor and decrease the scores for anxiety, depression, and anger, suggesting that the subjects were physiologically relaxed during the forest bathing trips.”
Here science has shown that gentle exercise and relaxation in a forest environment can help us undo some of the stressful downsides of modern life.
… And Can Reduce Inflammation Levels
A further study, this time in China, also looked at the benefits of forest bathing.
It took measurements from a group of 20 healthy male university students, before and after the time spent in the forest.
An additional group was sent to a city setting for comparison.
As before, researchers here also found reduced stress levels in the forest-based group.
They also found evidence of a reduction in pro-inflammatory levels.
Inflammation is one of the human’s body’s natural reactions to accidental damage or to pathogens like the flu virus.
Sometimes inflammation can go into overdrive, and can, therefore, be associated with conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.
While it is not yet clear whether forest bathing can help to remedy these conditions, the overall preventative benefits of forest bathing can be more clearly seen.
Science has made a pretty clear argument for getting yourself and your family off the couch and into the fresh air outdoors.
Your whole body can benefit: from brain power and memory to your skin and bones and everything in between.
It can even alter your mindset and have a positive influence on your personality.
Alongside a balanced healthy diet, plenty of exercises and adequate sleep, spending time outdoors is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.
If you are now resolved to spend more time outside, ensure you take sensible precautions like wearing only sensible clothing for the specific weather conditions and use sunscreen whenever necessary.
If you are planning to undertake a radical new fitness regimen, it’s always best to check with your doctor that this is advised, particularly if you are undergoing treatment for existing conditions.
Perhaps most importantly of all, enjoy the happiness and health an outdoors lifestyle can bring!