Adore the Outdoors

The Benefits of Being Outside

This weekend while at Mother’s Day Brunch, a dad of three boys all under the age of five told me, “I am so excited for summer. I’m going to try to take them hiking a lot more, they just do so much better when they are outside.” The entire table nodded and agreed, the general consensus was that we all did better when we got to spend more time outdoors. Then just like that the conversation shifted to how tasty the eggs were and how work was treating us. It got me thinking though, why is it that the majority of us see such drastic positive effects from spending time outside? So I decided to do some research and see if there was a scientific link.

Spoiler alert: there was.

Research shows the positive results of the outdoors are far reaching and significant; improving both mental and physical well being on a fairly drastic scale. For both children and adults alike there are both direct and secondary benefits of spending time in the great outdoors. Much of the positive effects play directly into the nCenter’s philosophy of holistic health. Honestly, the benefits are far too vast for one blog, so I am going to focus on the ones that most directly relate to the nCenter’s philosophy.

First, let’s talk about the relationship between hours spent outdoors and improved mental health. A July 2010 article published by Harvard University discusses this relationship. Sunlight has been a known elevator of mood for decades. Those who spend a significant portion of their day in well lit areas are shown to be much happier and less stressed and anxious. The benefits are magnified when it’s natural sunlight. A secondary benefit is, normally, when we are outdoors we are more active then when we are indoors. Like sunlight, exercise is a highly researched and well known elevator of mood due to the endorphins that are released when we are active. The Harvard article goes on to note that, sure, you could achieve the same benefits exercising indoors under lights that replicate the sun, however there is an additional factor. Research from the University of Essex in England shows that the benefits of sun and exercise are greatly increased when it is “green exercise”. Though the mechanism has yet to be identified, meta-analysis of data shows that when we exercise outdoors in a green environment the benefits are amplified with significant improvements to mood, self esteem, and general mental health than with the same exercise done indoors. Environmental Psychologist, Nancy Well, PhD of Cornell finds that just the presence of nearby nature “bolsters resilience against stress and adversity [… and] improves cognitive functioning.”

There is a direct and notable relationship between being in the great outdoors and our greater well-being. This research has been shown to apply to all populations, however the positive impacts are even more significant to people with ADD or ADHD. An article published in a 2004 issue of American Journal of Public Health stated “outdoor activities reduced ADHD symptoms significantly more than activities in indoor settings.” These children had improved concentration in the classroom and test scores.

Next, let’s discuss our well known friend, vitamin D. Unlike all other vitamins which we get from food sources, vitamin D does not naturally occur in what we eat. Our bodies synthesize vitamin D in our kidneys and liver. This synthesis pathway is triggered by sunlight hitting our skin. For this reason it is known as the “sunshine vitamin”. Evidence shows that the effects of vitamin D are far reaching– research suggests it helps against osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, depression, and anxiety just to name a few. It is thought to have more disease fighting powers than any of the other essential vitamins, and in general it is the most lacking in our population. Though supplemental vitamin D is available and effective, the old school approach of some good old fashioned sunshine is thought to be the best way to boost vitamin D. Exposing your arms and legs to 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight just a few times a week will have drastic positive impacts on vitamin D synthesis and overall health. Unfortunately most sunscreens block the sun rays that initiate synthesis, in order to get the full effects research says to expose yourself to sunlight without sunscreen for those 10 to 15 minutes and then lather it on for any further time outdoors.

Being outside, is without a doubt, a healthy choice. Not only does it elevate mood, increase concentration, improve general mental health, but it kick starts the natural pathway of vitamin D synthesis, which has been linked to a plethora of disease fighting benefits. There is a near endless list of both primary and secondary effects of being outdoors. Again, for the most part being outdoors often goes hand in hand with exercising and a cascade effect of increased fitness and decreased obesity which is shown to be one of the most drastic impacts on our overall health. Additionally, when we are outside we are away from screens, which have almost become a plague on our nation. Research shows that while computers and tablets have their place, overuse of them has negative impacts on our sleep, social abilities, and general psychies. Finally, climate change and the harmful impacts humans activities cause on the planet is a real concern. Children who grow up outside spending time in nature develop a greater appreciation for ecosystems and go on to become more aware of their impact on climate change and the environment. The list on how the outdoors effects both our inward health and outward actions is seemingly never ending, which makes the fact that the majority of Americans spend 90% of their time indoors appalling. So this summer try to get outdoors and reap the benefits. We are lucky enough to live in Montana where the sky is big, the outdoors truly great, and the opportunities to get some sunshine and green exercise endless.

Blog by Kat Afton