11 benefits of being outdoors

Even before I started working in the outdoor industry, I loved being outdoors. I have many happy memories of doing my school studying outdoors whenever I could, even on cold days. Summer vacations were spent outdoors as much as possible, without necessarily doing anything specific; just being outdoors.

Maybe that all came from growing up in a city and feeling confined and limited by grey, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the desire has stayed with me and I seek to be outdoors at any opportunity.

Since my childhood, I have looked a little more at why we should spend time outdoors and some of the benefits it brings. Some of these have been well researched and documented; others are merely anecdotal, but seem to apply to a broad cross-section of people I’ve worked with.

Physical

Of the benefits, they can be divided into those that are mental and those that are more physical in nature, which is where I’ll start. They are things in which we can notice changes for the better in our bodies, whether they are sick or healthy.

Vitamin D

One of the well-documented benefits of being outdoors is the increased level of vitamin D it provides. Sunlight hitting the skin starts the process that generates the vitamin in us. Studies suggest this vitamin may have protective effects against everything from heart attacks and strokes to cancer and depression. This is a huge debate in Scotland right now, with people suggesting the nation should take supplements to counteract the ill effects of so many gray days. However, it seems that you don’t need to spend a lot of time outside to reach a reasonable level: being outside for 15 minutes a day can be enough, and if you take advantage of every sunny day, you should be fine.

Obviously, there’s the downside of getting burned, which is why we’re told to religiously apply sunscreen, which prevents the vitamin-generating UVB light from hitting us. However, with a little common sense and a bit of balance, it should be possible to avoid overexposure but let in enough sun to keep you healthy, if you get outside enough.

working out

If you are outside, then by definition you are not driving your car or sitting on your couch. This suggests that you may be walking somewhere or engaging in some kind of more deliberate exercise. Assuming you’re at a level appropriate for your overall fitness level, this is a good thing that provides benefits. Again, it doesn’t need to be in large quantities. There are guidelines on what you need to do and it will be better if you can follow them. However, if you don’t normally exercise at all, I’m reasonably sure moving on to ‘something’ is a big step forward.

I know we can still go to a gym and work out and there is nothing wrong with that. However, my opinion is that the ever changing scenery outdoors is better than a TV on your treadmill and the other obvious benefit is that the outdoors is free.

cicatrization

According to a study conducted in Pittsburgh, it appears that having access to natural light is beneficial for patients recovering from spinal surgery. Other studies have shown the benefits of patients being able to see trees and countryside rather than just brick walls. I know that when I was incarcerated in the hospital recently, just for a few days, the fact that I could look out the window at something other than buildings was great. Now, this is not specifically about being outside, but surely the advantages of seeing these things can be multiplied by going outside as well, perhaps even touching nature. It comes as no surprise to me that, for years, long-term patients have been brought onto the hospital grounds and gardens as part of their convalescence.

Space

Particularly important for children, the outdoors provides more space. How many times have you noticed that a child feels like running but is too limited inside? Remove the shackles and they’ll be off, whether they’re darting down a small building hallway, getting under people’s feet and falling off the corners of tables, or playing airplanes, soccer, or just running around outside. Kids are much more active outdoors and I suspect that’s largely because there are fewer limits to slow them down and make them settle. They need to be allowed outside to let off steam, just ask an elementary school teacher on the third rainy day in a row!

Fresh air

Finally, on the physical side, I’m a big believer in the idea that living our days in our hermetically sealed, double-glazed, centrally heated or air-conditioned boxes (at work or at home) isn’t very healthy. I know just by looking at myself that fresh air helps me sleep better and gives me less trouble with my skin condition. Maybe that’s true for other people too, who just need a breath of fresh air sometimes. Yes, cold drafty houses aren’t great either, but I suspect a happy medium can be found, which may come from frequent visits to the big, fresh-smelling outdoor world.

Mental

There is another body of work looking at the impact being outdoors has on our mental well-being. While there are few conclusive studies, it seems that a number of researchers are fairly convinced that there are psychological benefits to dating. In addition to all this academic research, I can now also speak from my personal experience. Stuck inside with a ruptured Achilles tendon, even a short ten-minute walk down the street makes me feel better inside. In this case it particularly alleviates my feelings of confinement and monotony. These and other ideas are developed below.

Light

Light makes you feel better and there’s generally more outside than inside, even on days you wouldn’t classify as ‘bright’. If you’re not sure, just look at the number of people suffering in the winter due to seasonal lack of light. While your job may enslave you to an indoor routine that means getting in and out in the dark, a five-minute walk at lunchtime might get over the problem enough to make you feel better.

Calm

The natural green colors you find in the country tend to exhibit a much more calming effect on your brain than the blacks and grays of city life. Even in the confines of a downtown park, the greenery there is most appealing to the eye. You may not live near open green spaces (which is a shame given the apparent benefits of that), but when you want to, hopefully you can find them and make the most of them, even a dandelion growing in cracked mortar is a beginning.

It also seems to be a common opinion that one of the most relaxing sounds you can hear is running water. Whether it’s a stream, a wave, or a waterfall, sounds somehow make us feel better, in a way that a dripping faucet simply can’t. No need to go camping on the beach or climb a mountain stream; even the creek running through the town park or the park fountains can produce the same effect.

Caught

Sometimes I think you can feel trapped by being inside all the time. Particularly at work where you may already feel like you’re simply part of a system with no escape, having to sit in the same seat day in and day out just provides a monotonous view of the world. Stepping outside, the view opens up, even just looking down a city street. Add the advantages of walking even a few meters above the crowd and the feeling of being hemmed in can disappear, albeit temporarily.

variety

They say that variety is the spice of life and that a change is as good as a break. In that case, it must be beneficial to pass, however briefly, from an indoor existence to an outdoor period. If we can go somewhere new on the deal, then it will be even better. It doesn’t have to be exotic, no matter how much travel agents try to convince you otherwise. Walking down a different street in your own city may be enough. Going to a different park or a new trail will provide even more benefits.

Concentration

It seems that people, and in particular children, who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit from being outdoors. If they can counteract their ‘nature deficit’ by getting outside (as described by Richard Louv in his book ‘The Last Boy in the Woods’), then their concentration improves. The research on this focuses primarily on these children, but it is not a wild guess to suggest that the same may be true for all of us. When I worked in a Darlington office complex, I used to take ten minutes at lunch just to walk around the block every day. It did wonders for my ability to focus in the afternoon. With the flexible schedule in place, I was free to come back in the middle of the afternoon if I needed to.

Appreciation

Finally, I think there is benefit to being outdoors because of the new appreciation it gives us of our area. Taking the time to look around you in a natural place, whether it is perceived as beautiful or not, will give you a chance to see what is really there. You don’t need to move far away. Simply sitting outside with things growing around you will present a multiplicity of objects to be observed. On top of that, there may be wildlife, such as birds or small mammals, as well as weather impacting the land or sea. When viewed with open eyes, it’s hard not to be impressed and this can only increase your appreciation of where you are. When this is your homeland, it can fill you with a sense of pride by association. However, even if you’re far away, it’s still possible to gain a sense of wonder and satisfaction: having the privilege of living in such a diverse world is incredible.

conclusion

You may think some of this is hard to believe, or doesn’t apply to your situation or the geographic area you frequent. However, having spent most of my working life in outdoor contexts, I have seen many of these concepts in action and helped people develop their thinking while outdoors. I couldn’t put numbers on it, but I would guess that everyone who has come with me over the years has benefited in some way from the experience. which begs the question why we don’t go out more often: it’s obviously good for us!

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