Originally Published on November 10, 2022. Last Updated on May 12, 2023.
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The increased economic, social, and public health struggles in recent years have caused extra anxiety. In fact, 87% of adults say the cost of living is a top stressor, followed closely by global tension and supply chain issues which are tied at 81% (Stress in America, 2022).
Technology has made coping with these stressors easier with telecommuting, telemedicine, and virtual entertainment. However, these modern conveniences have kept Americans on electronic devices—and couches—more than ever, which can lead to psychological and physical health issues. Sleep disturbances caused by artificial light, stress stemming from overstimulation, and other mind and body concerns are increasingly common as we spend less of our time outside and more of it online.
Completely removing technology from our lives isn’t a practical solution. But we can compromise by reducing our usage and engaging in a simple activity that offers science-backed health perks: spending time outdoors. So take your phone, tablet, or laptop to your patio or front stoop and keep reading to learn about the benefits of being outside.
Effects of Stress
Humans are designed to experience stress. It’s a physical and mental response that keeps us alert when we face changes or challenges. Some stress is normal, but problems arise when it persists without relief. If the stress response—commonly called the “fight-or-flight” response—is continuously triggered, our minds and bodies signal for help through various physical and mental symptoms, including:
- Social withdrawal
- Sleep disturbances
- Inability to focus
- Chest pain
- Muscle tension (Stress: Signs, symptoms, management & prevention, 2021)
Additionally, stress can increase your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and other health problems.
How Being Outside Helps
Spending time outdoors can improve the health and physical well-being of families and individuals from all walks of life. However, access to outside spaces doesn’t look the same for everyone and is something many unintentionally take for granted. Research findings suggest that creating inclusive programs that promote the use of natural environments can reach the majority population and underrepresented minority groups (Colley et al., 2022). Continue reading to learn how outdoor time can have a positive impact on all of us, regardless of age, race, location, or religion.
Improved Physical Development & Executive Function
Let your kids enjoy unstructured play outside as much as possible. Outdoor playtime is a prime opportunity for vitamin D production, and similar to how plants make food through photosynthesis, our bodies make vitamin D when the sun shines on our skin. This vitamin is crucial to developing strong bones and immune systems.
Unstructured play also helps develop and improve executive function—the set of mental skills that help us multitask, plan, troubleshoot, and maintain self-control (McCarthy, 2020).
Better Academic Performance
Did you know the positive effects of outdoor time follow your children to school? Multiple studies have indicated that exposure to nature improves children’s attention spans. Nature-based classrooms offer kids a chance to be physically active, reducing brain fatigue and stress. This relaxed mental state allows kids to stay engaged longer and enjoy learning more (Kuo et al., 2019).
Moreover, children who experience environment-based education are shown to have higher test scores and increased physical fitness opportunities—the latter of which is touted by the Centers for Disease Control. The agency advocates getting your kids outside for unstructured play for at least one hour each day to combat childhood obesity (Whole child: Developing mind, body and spirit through outdoor play 2010).
Enhanced Quality of Life
You may have heard that the key to a long life is to never stop moving. This age-old advice is actually cosigned by science, with research indicating that elderly individuals who engage in more outdoor activities are healthier than those who stay inside (Kerr et al., 2012). Seniors who get in at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity show reduced depression and improved cognitive and physical function. Interestingly, those who do not maintain an active lifestyle are more likely to experience reduced cognitive function and increased depressive symptoms.
Decreased Fear of Falling
Lack of indoor and outdoor physical activity can increase the risk of falls. In fact, 40% of nursing home admissions are due to slip and fall accidents at home (Rubenstein, 2022). Active seniors with enhanced quality of life also have reduced fears of falling (Kerr et al., 2012). Regular exercise keeps their bodies strong and mobile, lowering the likelihood of accidental injuries caused by falls.
“Fear of falling can dramatically increase fall risk,” Sandy Goldstein, PT, CDMS, and founder of Measurabilities, LLC, states. “Increased activity tolerance, lower extremity strength, and balance all play a part in decreased risk of falls.”
Stronger Relationships with Caregivers
We now have scientific proof that experiences are better when shared. Research indicates that seniors who spend quality time outside with their caregivers have stronger bonds. Exploring nature with others increases relaxation, encourages personal connections, and strengthens our awareness of being part of something greater (Jacobs, 2022). This puts caregivers at ease and steers their elderly loved ones away from secluded, sedentary lifestyles.
Boosted Immune System
No matter your age, spending time outside is good for your immune system. In addition to increasing vitamin D levels, getting outside is the best way to increase your phytoncide intake. Plants release these organic compounds, which are said to have antifungal and antibacterial qualities that help keep illnesses at bay (Immerse yourself in a forest for better health, 2016).
Stress & Anxiety Relief
It’s well-known that exercise is good for your body, and when you take your workout outdoors, you’ll also enjoy the added health benefits of reduced anxiety. The soothing scenes provided by natural settings don’t bombard your senses the way technology does, calming your mind while you simultaneously break a sweat (Spend time in nature to reduce stress and anxiety, 2022).
You can literally and figuratively breathe easier with Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Unlike city environments, forest settings have a calming effect on the body, reducing blood pressure, pulse rate, and cortisol levels. Additionally, the parasympathetic nervous system will become active, leading to lowered sympathetic nerve activity—the “fight-or-flight” response (Park et al., 2010).
To successfully practice Shinrin-yoku, simply go into a forest and immerse your body and mind in its atmosphere—or bathe in it.
Communing with nature could add years to your life. There’s a connection between increased longevity and residential greenness (James et al., 2016). Residential greenness is the amount of natural vegetation surrounding a home, and the more foliage and flowers there are around your home, the greater the likelihood of a longer lifespan.
Reduced Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Gardening, taking nature walks with your family, or even mowing the grass can put you in a better mood. Researchers have deeply explored the correlation between decreased depression and residential green areas, and their findings indicated that those who spent more time in foliage-filled outdoor areas experienced reduced mental illness symptoms (Beyer et al., 2014).
Improved Sleep Quality
Did you know that soaking up morning sunshine can give you a good night’s sleep and balance your circadian rhythms? Natural light exposure early in the day promotes nocturnal melatonin production sooner, which means you’ll have an easier time falling asleep that night (Mead, 2008).
How much time should I spend outside?
At least 120 minutes of outdoor activity per week is recommended (that’s a little over 15 minutes per day), but more time outside will only benefit you (White et al., 2019). Here’s what happens when you get outside every day.
Staying Safe When Outside
- Dress for the weather. Wearing the right clothes will keep you comfortable when you’re outside. Bundle up when it’s chilly and wear light, breathable clothing to stay cool on hot days.
- Wear sunscreen. While there are wellness benefits to soaking up natural sunlight, too much exposure can lead to sunburns and skin damage.
- Go with a group. There’s safety in numbers, so if you want to explore an unfamiliar area, ask a few friends to come with you.
- Stay off your phone. It’s hard to stay alert and watch your step while scrolling through Instagram stories, so tuck your phone away and pay attention to the path you’re on (Pedestrian safety, 2011).
- Wear lights. Wear clip-on safety lights and reflective gear while running or walking your dog at night. This makes you visible to motorists and other pedestrians.
- Avoid playground hazards. When you take your kids to the park, check to ensure the playground is safe. Sharp edges, overcrowded play areas, strangulation hazards, and broken equipment indicate unsafe spaces (Playground safety, 2011).
How to Take Advantage of Your Outdoor Space
Transform your cozy outdoor space into a meditation area. Line the edges with tall bushes and trellises twined with thick climbing plants to create privacy, unroll an outdoor area rug, and top it with one or two pieces of coordinating all-weather furniture—make sure there’s still plenty of room for your yoga mat.
Your backyard is your very own green space that you can style however you want. Think of all the ways you can enhance the area, from creating a new fire pit site to building a pretty and private open-air bar.
You don’t have to go far to have fun with your family. Get everyone up and out in the fresh air with engaging outdoor activities like a backyard camping trip, a themed birthday party, or stargazing on your patio.
How to Use Your Outdoor Space Every Season
Don’t let cold weather keep you inside. You can do several activities outside with your loved ones in the winter months, especially if you live in a mild climate, including bonfires and festive family get-togethers (just don’t forget to set out extra blankets).
When the weather warms up, it’s time to clean up. Once your garden has been sowed for the season, refresh your lounge space with a thorough cleaning and new decor.
Summertime and the (outdoor) living is easy. Stay cool, wear sunscreen, and relax with your family as you dine alfresco and recline by the pool.
Mother Nature puts on the year’s best show as the tree leaves take on warm red, yellow, and orange hues. Take your kids outside to see the changing colors, and gather a few leaves for crafts and scrapbooks.
- American Psychological Association. (2022). (rep.). Stress in America. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2022/march-2022-survival-mode
- Beyer, K., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F., & Malecki, K. (2014). Exposure to neighborhood green space and Mental Health: Evidence from the survey of the Health of Wisconsin. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453–3472. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph110303453
- Colley, K., Irvine, K. N., & Currie, M. (2022). Who benefits from nature? A quantitative intersectional perspective on inequalities in contact with nature and the gender gap outdoors. Landscape and Urban Planning, 223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2022.104420
- Immerse yourself in a forest for better health. Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. (2016, March 25). Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html
- Jacobs, B. J. (2022, August 25). Nature can improve stress and depression in caregivers. AARP. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/basics/info-2021/nature-improves-stress.html
- James, P., Hart, J. E., Banay, R. F., & Laden, F. (2016). Exposure to greenness and mortality in a nationwide prospective cohort study of women. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(9), 1344–1352. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1510363
- Kerr, J., Marshall, S., Godbole, S., Neukam, S., Crist, K., Wasilenko, K., Golshan, S., & Buchner, D. (2012). The relationship between outdoor activity and health in older adults using GPS. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 9(12), 4615–4625. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph9124615
- Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2019). Do experiences with nature promote learning? converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(305). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305
- McCarthy, C. (2020, October 27). 6 reasons children need to play outside. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/6-reasons-children-need-to-play-outside-2018052213880
- Mead, M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: A bright spot for human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(4). https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.116-a160
- National Wildlife Federation. (2010). (rep.). Whole child: Developing mind, body and spirit through outdoor play. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Be%20Out%20There/BeOutThere_WholeChild_V2.ashx
- Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 Forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
- Pedestrian safety. National Safety Council. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.nsc.org/community-safety/safety-topics/pedestrian-safety
- Playground safety. National Safety Council. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.nsc.org/community-safety/safety-topics/child-safety/playground-safety
- Spend time in nature to reduce stress and anxiety. American Heart Association. (2022, July 26). Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/spend-time-in-nature-to-reduce-stress-and-anxiety
- Stress: Signs, symptoms, management & prevention. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, January 28). Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress
- White, M. P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B. W., Hartig, T., Warber, S. L., Bone, A., Depledge, M. H., & Fleming, L. E. (2019). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and Wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3