So many of us are caught up with work, school, to-do lists, and social obligations that spending time outdoors tends to be saved for vacations or special occasions. According to a recent government estimate, the average American spends 90% of their life indoors. This is a grave (but easily avoidable) mistake on our part. By neglecting to incorporate the natural environment in our daily lives, we are not only missing out on the resulting health benefits, but may actually be experiencing some consequential negative health effects.
Improve Your Health
There are several scientifically proven reasons why regularly getting outside will improve your health, but vitamin D tops the list. Vitamin D is unlike any other vitamin in that our bodies actually produce it, but only in the presence of sunlight. There are very few vitamin D-rich foods, so to ensure that your body has enough of this essential vitamin you need to expose your skin to sunlight regularly. Keeping in mind that the average individual spends the vast majority of their life indoors, it’s not surprising that an estimated 75% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D.
Every tissue in the body contains vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system – vitamin D is needed at virtually every level for the body to function properly.
Doctors and researchers have found that vitamin D:
- Strengthens bones and teeth. In fact, vitamin D must be present in order for calcium and phosphorus (essential minerals for developing and maintaining bone strength) to be absorbed and utilized within our bodies.
- Improves respiratory health and reduces asthma symptoms
- Reduces inflammation, putting you at decreased risk for a host of inflammation-related diseases (including heart disease, arthritis, and cancer).
- Regulates blood pressure
- Aids the immune system
- Increases cognitive function
- Protects against diabetes
- Reduces the risk of cancer
- Boosts cardiovascular function and reduces the risk of heart attack
- Aids in brain development
- Aids in proper muscle function, and reduces the risk of MS.
A lack of vitamin D has been linked to conditions such as asthma, type-II diabetes, cancer, acne, high blood pressure, depression, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and type-I diabetes.
Recent research has also indicated that vitamin D plays an important role in mental health, particularly for those suffering from depression. There is a well-established link between low levels of vitamin D in the blood and symptoms of depression, and numerous studies indicate that optimizing vitamin D levels improves psychological wellbeing. In one study, adults with vitamin D deficiencies who received high doses of the vitamin saw an improvement in their depressive symptoms. Another study found that when vitamin D deficient woman began supplementing with the vitamin daily, their depression symptoms significantly improved. This is not to say that vitamin D deficiency is entirely to blame, as there are often many factors involved in the onset and persistence of depression, but it certainly plays a role for some people.
As previously mentioned, the best supply of vitamin D comes from the sun. To ensure your vitamin D levels are optimal, doctors and researchers in the field recommend 15-30 minutes of sun exposure each day. Unfortunately, sunscreens block 99 percent of the UVB rays our skin needs to produce vitamin D, so allow your arms and legs to go unprotected during this time.
Feel Your Happiest
Recently, there’s been a surge of scientific research on the link between spending time outdoors and increased mood. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the closer you live to nature, the healthier and happier you’ll be. Participants living within 1 kilometer of a park or wooded area experienced less anxiety and depression than those living farther away. Studies have also found spending time in nature to increase feelings of relaxation, and decrease levels of anxiety and stress.
Exercising outdoors increases these feel-good effects. The link between physical activity and improved mood, increased energy, and decreased stressed is well established at this point, but researchers are now looking to “green exercise” (i.e. exercise outdoors in a natural area) as a way to amplify these benefits. Numerous studies have found that joggers who exercise outdoors in a natural setting feel more restored, and less anxious, angry, and depressed than those who burned the same amount of calories in the gym. Researchers at the University of Essex in England found that just five minutes of “green exercise” resulted in self-esteem and mood improvements, while indoor exercise did not.
Simply put, studies show that activities performed in nature make us feel happier than those same activities performed indoors.
Boost Your Concentration
Research indicates that spending time outdoors can actually increase your ability to focus. A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that taking a walk in a park helped to significantly ease brain fatigue (as measured by EEG) and increased participants’ ability to concentrate afterwards. There have also been numerous studies suggesting the outdoors as a treatment for ADHD in children. A study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that children with ADHD scored significantly higher on a test of concentration after a walk through a park than after a walk through a downtown area. Additional ADHD studies have also found outdoor exercise to positively affect children’s ability to focus and concentrate.
Just Do It!
Americans are busier than ever, so regularly spending time outside may seem like a near-impossible task. But research shows that as little as 5 minutes spent outside each day will result in noticeable mental and physical health benefits. Chances are, a quick break in the sunshine will leaving you feeling more energized, upbeat, and better able to handle your busy schedule.
Some of our favorite ideas for enjoying the benefits of nature include:
- Create a ritual out of it – commit to a morning or evening walk, every day.
- Spend some time in the yard gardening.
- Enjoy your lunch al fresco – you’ll return to work feeling refreshed and focused.
- Sit outside, relax, and read a good book.
- Fishing and boating are great ways to reconnect with the natural environment.
- Head to the beach! There is something so revitalizing about spending time in the sand and ocean.
Reclaiming and maintaining our health involves so much more than eating well and exercising (though these are extremely important elements!). Begin to consider the natural environment in which you live as an additional factor in your journey towards health and happiness. Your mind and body will thank you for it!