Health & Wellness Articles

Why Getting Outside is So Good for You

Are You Nature-Deprived?

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John Keats once wrote, "The poetry of the earth is never dead."

Poet or not, almost all of us have been awestruck by nature at one time or another. Whether it's running at sunset on a sandy white beach, walking alongside a cool trickling stream, watching sunset over a mountain ridge, or even hearing the wind blow through the trees in the morning, being outdoors and aware of the world's beauty can make you feel energized and alive. Recently, much research has focused on the so-called "nature connection," and how it affects our health, outlook and overall life.

Nature's Healing Powers
It seems that just being out in nature does your body, mind and soul some good. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the closer you live to nature, the healthier you're likely to be. The study took an objective look at 345,143 Dutch people's medical records, assessing health status for 24 conditions, including cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases. The records were then correlated with how much green space was located within 1 kilometer and 3 kilometers of a person's postal code. And what did researchers find? People who lived within 1 kilometer of a park or a wooded area experienced less anxiety and depression than those who lived farther away from green space.

Additionally, people living in urban environments had a higher prevalence of 15 of the 24 conditions, with the relationship strongest for anxiety disorder and depression. It's interesting to note that the green space's health benefits were only found when they were within a kilometer (not 3 kilometers away), except for anxiety disorders, gastrointestinal digestive disorders and other medically unexplained physical symptoms, according to the research.

Live in a city with no green space nearby? No worries! Other studies by researchers in England and Sweden have found that joggers who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage and landscape views, feel more restored, and less anxious, angry and depressed than those runners who burn the same amount of calories in gyms or other urban settings. So even if you have to drive a few miles to find a little green, it's worth it!

Why Does Nature Do the Body So Good?
So what is it about nature that makes us so much healthier? And what is about outdoor exercise that is better than working out in a gym? While there are many theories as to why being in nature makes us healthier, one leading hypothesis is that being outside increases our Vitamin D intake.

We just keep learning more and more about how important vitamin D is for health, including preventing cancer, hormonal problems, obesity, and inflammation, and having a strong immune system. Because sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, it only seems logical that spending more time in outside would increase your vitamin D intake.

Being in a natural setting can also help increase your quality of sleep, as studies show that natural sunlight helps set the body's internal clock that tells us when to eat and sleep, and normalizes hormonal functions that occur at specific times of the day. And we all know how important sleep is not just for our health, but even for our weight loss!

Enjoying the outdoors also gives us a break from technology and the on-the-run lifestyle to which we're all so accustomed. When we're outside, we have a clearer, more focused mindset to hang out with friends, or spend some quiet time alone or even play with a pet.  (Remember: Pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). When we're outside, we can also learn and enjoy a new skill or physical activity. And perhaps most important of all, we get a chance to turn off—or better, leave behind—our cell phones to clear our heads and break from the stress we all have each and every day.

How Much Green Exercise Is Enough?
So how much green time do you need? Not much, recent research says. According to the American Chemical Society's journal Environmental Science & Technology, as little as five minutes exercising in a park, working in a backyard garden, hiking on a nature trail, or even sitting in a plant-filled setting will benefit your mental health. From researchers' analysis of 1,252 people of different ages, genders and mental health status performing walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating, horse-riding and farming, the greatest health changes occurred in the young and the mentally ill, although people of all ages and social groups benefited. All natural environments benefited study participants, including parks in urban settings. However, green areas with water were especially beneficial, as were environments that were both green and blue (think of a green tree on a bright blue sky).

Fun Ways to Get Outside
Ready to get out there? Here are seven easy ways to enjoy the benefits of nature!
  1. Make being outside a ritual. Go for a morning or evening walk every day. And if you have one, bring your pooch—outdoor exercise is good for Fido, too.
  2. Try gardening. From a planting vegetable garden to planting a few flowers, both activities get you outside regularly and communing with nature.
  3. Take vacations in beautiful places. For your next scheduled break, visit a state or national park or go to a beautiful beach—whatever landscape speaks to you!
  4. Find a trail. Whether hiking or biking is your speed, there are trails around the country for you to explore. Find one near you at trails.com.
  5. Sit outside. We're always so on-the-go. The next time you need a break, try sitting outside quietly and just appreciate the natural beauty around you! Notice the scents, sights and sounds as you sit quietly and focus on the moment.
  6. Go to a local park. Ask others in your neighborhood which park is their favorite to visit. Then the next time the weather is good, trade your usual gym workout for an outdoor one!
  7. Commit to the outdoors, rain or shine. When you're layered properly, you can enjoy the outdoors in any season, cold, wet or hot. Don't forget about the fun and healthy outdoor activities available during the rainy or cold months—these are the times that we have even less outdoor interaction, but may be when we need it the most!
     
So the next time you have the opportunity to get outside for a brisk walk or a workout, take the chance to soak in that Mother Nature! What's your favorite exercise to do outside? How does it make you feel?
 
Sources
Gardner, Amanda. "Being Near Nature Improves Physical, Mental Health," accessed May 2011. www.usatoday.com.
 
Louv, Richard. "The Powerful Link Between Conserving Land and Preserving Health," accessed May 2011. www.childrenandnature.org.
 
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Sleep. "Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep," accessed May 2011. www.ninds.nih.gov.
 
National Centers for Infectious Diseases. "Health Benefits of Pets," accessed May 2011. www.cdc.org.
 
Science Daily. "In the Green of Health: Just 5 Minutes of 'Green Exercise' Optimal for Good Mental Health," accessed May 2011. www.sciencedaily.org.

 

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Member Comments

  • I have always enjoyed the out of doors and really need it to recharge. Horse riding and hiking are my favorites. I am also taking up trail bicycle riding.
  • I have suffered with SAD since 2000. Daily time outside has helped control this depression.
  • I like going out with my dogs in the yard & running around. I have a couple acres & my neighbors in front & back have horses. So it's nice just out in the yard.
  • I need to work on this. Try to get out for at least a short walk!
  • I try to walk outside every day. Even if it's raining, I walk laps on my front porch which is 40 feet long.
  • Dearly Beloved and I walk outside every morning as much as possible.
  • Living on Cape Cod summer is easy. I'm outside for walking, going to the beach, yard and garden work, and using my outside porch for meals and reading. Fall and spring can be more challenging, but still very doable. Winter is the biggest challenge. We spend January in Florida, but have to bundle up and brave the cold for December, February, and March.
  • Rain or shine, my furry friend and I are regularly out side for his play time and my need to break out of the house. Does us both good.
  • I live in a small city close to many parks but do not consider it safe to walk in the long isolated trails alone. I walk on the city streets. At the moment I live in B.C. Canada about 6 hours drive from the forest fires. For the past 3 days I can not see any sun or clouds, only smoke, it is rated high with lots of different metal particles in the air that can cause cancer & shorten your life the government site says. It is suppose to be better tomorrow afternoon, if so I will walk then. I have 3 blood clots in one lung and get pain in my lungs and eyes when outside. I have had this for 36 hours and it has not stopped. I only went outside for 30 minutes. I had to walk to a Dr. and get a important blood test regarding my blood clots.
  • I live in the mountains and have national parks in my area. It is so good to have nature on my doorstep.
  • When I was in Jamaica I got up early everyday and walked or biked the 2 miles to work. I spent much more time outdoors than I do now. Because I have no friends in this area and no one to work out with it is not much fun. I thought putting my headphones on would help but it does not really motivate me as much. I should try again.
  • I committed to doing my daily yoga practice outdoors for the entire month of July. While it's been so hot I slip on the mat sometimes due to sweating, it's been one of the best things I've ever done. Something about seeing the actual sun during sun salutations and hearing and seeing birds at my feeders has really enriched my practice and my life. I'm going to be spending more time outdoors from now on!
  • I agree totally with your article. To me, being outside daily and adds perspective to life and gardening centers your life in nature rather than in a house or office or school. Six weeks after joining Spark I wrote a blog about how I planned to adjust my Spark goals to meet my personal needs which described how gardening anchored my life.

    Gardening was not possible when I lived in New York City, but during the 9 years I spent there, I walked nearly everywhere I went and spent time walking through Central Park or, on Sundays, visiting the Cloisters, where there were gardens and harpsichord music.

    So, Jenn, you hit the nail on the head with this blog. Being outside at least for a while each day is an important part of being healthy. To your points, I might add that being outside expands the space that encloses you, so you get a broader perspective on life.

  • I agree. However in FL this time of year over 100 index not good for you . I do try to get out non mosquito and lower heat times. We do make up for it in late fall and winter.
  • I suffer from SAD. If I do jot get outside daily, I pay a price.

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.