We have all heard the term “getting a bit of fresh air,” to help clear the mind, but it turns out that being outdoors has been scientifically proven to improve mental and physical health!
One of the most obvious reasons for going outside is the abundance of vitamin D found in sunlight. Getting enough vitamin D is key to maintaining a healthy immune system. Those who do not get enough of this vitamin are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Adequate Vitamin D levels maintains bone and muscle strength,” Nanette Hoffman, M.D., an internal medicine physician at the Senior Healthcare Center in Springhill, said. “Small amounts of sun exposure — 5–10 minutes of exposure of the arms and legs or the hands, arms, and face — two or three times per week is generally adequate for vitamin D levels along with an adequate dietary intake of vitamin D usually found in dairy products and seafood.”
Exposure to sunlight each day can prevent and even reverse symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome, caused by increased exposure to artificial light through screen time. Symptoms of CVS can be blurred vision, eye irritation and headaches. A 2008 study in the Archives of Ophthalmology also found that children who are increasingly exposed to more artificial light can help to prevent the development of nearsightedness with two hours of exposure to sunlight each day.
Sleep can also be improved via exposure to the outdoors. Sleep patterns are related to the circadian rhythm, which in turn is associated with sunlight. When people spend too much time indoors, it can alter our circadian rhythms. Early exposure to morning sunlight can help to recalibrate and improve sleep cycles.
Being outdoors also makes you more likely to engage in physical activity. A 2012 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity showed that older adults who were physically active outdoors at least once a week exercised more than those who only exercised indoors. This is tied to a theory known as biophilia, which suggests that human beings seek an innate relationship with being outdoors and around animals, plants and flowers. Thus, exercising in nature can be more pleasurable.
Finally, the psychological benefits of being outdoors and in sunlight cannot be understated. In a 2015 study, researchers at Stanford University found that those who walked in nature experienced less anxiety and negative thoughts and more happiness, confidence and self-fulfillment. The study found that activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, which may lead to negative thoughts, was decreased among those who walked in a natural setting.
A Japanese practice known as forest bathing — or spending an extended period of time in a wooded area — has begun to trend worldwide, including in the United States. Participants are encouraged to walk or hike, run or even practice yoga or meditation in a forested area. Typically, they feel calmer and centered after this experience. Studies conducted in Japan have shown multiple mental health benefits, and it has become a core part of Japanese preventive medicine.
“My family and I often take hikes outside. It is a great way to bond together without the distraction of electronics,” said Jennifer Wicke, a Gainesville mom of three. Her and her family hike local trails and plan to travel for a hiking vacation in Banff National Park this summer. “We always turn off our phones and encourage the kids to notice all of the natural wonders around them and use their imagination. For me personally, trail running outside is a form of meditation for me. It helps to center me and I feel more relaxed.”
The verdict is in — next time you need a physical or mental boost, ditch your device and head outdoors. “Overall, being outdoors and active are related to greater self-reported physical functioning … and less depression,” said Hoffman.
By Tracy Wright