Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors

Woman sledding with children

The Great Outdoors: It’s Good for Your Health

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks,” John Muir, the early 20th century nature preservation advocate known as “Father of the National Parks,” once stated. Muir’s early words of wisdom aptly summarize researchers’ subsequent findings proving the outdoors and all its beauty and splendor offers many positive benefits to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.

National Play Outside Day is designated as the 1st Saturday of each month as a time to get outside to explore, play and enjoy nature. With winter in full swing, your local Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health professionals shares many health benefits spending time outdoors provides, plus some fun outdoor activities to help you and your family fend off cabin fever and its subsequent winter doldrums and boost your mental and physical health.

Nature’s Health Benefits

Researchers’ analyses of the human connection with nature yielded findings that continually prove vast health benefits of spending time outdoors:

Nature helps our bodies to optimally function. Forest bathing, called Shinrin-Yoku in Japan, is a well-known way to spend time outdoors and connect with nature. Research found those who practice forest bathing have optimum nervous system functions, well-balanced heart conditions and reduced bowel disorders.

Exposure to nature helps us fight disease. Ongoing research also relates frequent walks or trips into the wilderness may help patients in fighting terminal diseases through stimulation of anti-cancer protein production. Forest walking also lowered blood pressure and improved physiological relaxation, including in those study participants diagnosed with hypertension.

Getting outdoors helps to maintain healthy weight, increase mobility and fight obesity. Studies have related nature connections to lower BMI. People who exercise outdoors are less tired and have fewer risk of obesity and subsequent related conditions.

Outdoor activities reduce risks of developing eyesight problems like hypermetropia and myopia. A survey conducted on children in Australia revealed school-aged kids who participated in outdoor activities had better vision than kids who spent more time indoors (Rose, Morgan, & Kifley, 2008).

Nature helps emotional regulation plus improves memory and cognitive brain functions. A study on the cognitive benefits of nature found those who enjoyed a nature walk did better on a memory test than those who traversed urban streets (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008).

Nature walks benefit people with depression and anxiety. Studies indicate people having mild to major depressive disorders showed significant positive mood shifts when exposed to nature. Additionally, those felt more motivation and energy to recover and return to normalcy (Berman et al., 2012).

Nature helps reduce stress. Recent investigations reveal being outdoors reduces stress by lowering cortisol, the stress hormone produced within the body (Gidlow, Randall, Gillman, Smith, & Jones, 2016).

Being outside hones our mind. Nature walks and other outdoor activities build attention and focus (Hartwig, Mang, & Evans, 1991). There’s also important evidence indicating strong environmental connections are related to better performance, heightened concentration and reduced risk of developing Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009).

Spending time outdoors provides us with much-needed Vitamin D.  This vital nutrient regulates our immune system and protects against diseases like osteoporosis, cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. An estimated 40% of U.S. men and women are vitamin D deficient, increasing lifetime risk of developing such diseases. Exposure to sunlight also helps modulate our bodies’ natural circadian rhythms.

Nature helps us maintain a regular fitness plan and helps us strive toward having a long, quality life. Research proves those who exercise outdoors enjoy workout sessions more and are more likely to do it regularly than those who exercise indoors (Thompson Coon et al., 2011). Outdoor activities directly correlate to having longer life span and fewer health problems.

Nature improves reasoning, problem-solving and creative abilities. A study at the University of Kansas found that spending more time outdoors and less time with electronic devices and technology can increase problem-solving skills and improve creative abilities (Atchley, Strayer, & Atchley, 2012).

Being outdoors enhances attention and focus. A study conducted and published by Stanford University, California revealed participants who walked in green parklands showed increased attention and focus, more so than participants who walked in closed urban settings or on a treadmill (Bratman, Daily, Levy, & Gross, 2015). The green parkland walkers also showed less negative thinking and more self-confidence than those using treadmills.

Proximity to green spaces enhances sleep duration and quality in adults. The study found evidence of a positive association between green space exposures and sleep quality and quantity and suggest green exercise and therapeutic gardening as possible intervention methods to improve sleep outcomes.

Exposure to nature can protect against illness and improve positive feelings of wellbeing. Studies indicate exposure to Mycobacterium Vaccae, a microorganism found in nature, has several benefits to physical and mental health. Also known as the “happy bacterium,” it’s useful for treating asthma, cancer, depression, phobia, dermatitis and even tuberculosis, while providing natural immunity to infections and viruses (including COVID-19 and the flu) and significant boosts to brain functioning. A 2004 study outlines interesting findings: by injecting the microorganism into those diagnosed with chronic lung disease, those patients recovered faster and with a better prognosis. What’s more, the bacterium was discovered to have an antidepressant effect on mice, activating neurotransmitters in the brain that release serotonin, a hormone that induces happiness and positivity (Lowery et al, 2007).

In another study, those hospital patients with room window views of natural outdoor settings during post-operative recovery had shorter hospital stays than those patients without similar views while recuperating.

Plants and flowers brought indoors improve mental health and mind function, plus cleanse the body of toxins. Studies prove indoor plants or a garden are beneficial for mental health, as they help improve sensory awareness, cognitive functions, and enhance focus (Orwell, Wood, Tarran, Torpy, & Burchett, 2004). They also help to cleanse our respiratory systems of toxins, increase respiratory function and improve the air quality of artificial, enclosed environments. One 2016 study examining the relationship between local greenery and mortality risk followed 108,630 women for 8 years. Compared to people with the least greenery in their neighborhoods, those people surrounded with the most greenery were 34% less likely to die from respiratory diseases.

Getting outdoors reduces negativity and disease. Staying solely in human-made environments invites disorders like stress, depression, obesity and cardiovascular diseases, plus proven negative impact to overall quality of wellbeing (Ulrich & Simons, 1986). A recent UK-based study indicates those who walk 10,000 steps outdoors daily reduce their dementia risk by 50%.

Nature offers many positive influences on our mental health and wellbeing:

  • A strong connection to nature helps us effectively manage everyday stressors, experience positivity and joy, regain intrinsic motivation and become more attuned to sensory stimulations (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan, 1995).

  • People who spend more time in nature are more intuitive, energetic, and consciously attentive (Fuller, Irvine, Devine-Wright, Warren, & Gaston, 2007; Keniger, Gaston, Irvine, & Fuller, 2013).

  • Staying close to nature helps build better focus (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).

  • Spending more time outdoors has consistent, replenishing effects on human emotions, memory and cognition (Ulrich, 1983).

  • Extensive research and surveys prove that when we feel low and less energetic, an encounter with nature can instantaneously make us feel better (Zuckerman, 1977).

  • Many studies prove those with a close connection to nature have higher elements of inner happiness, positive thinking and resiliency. A deep connection with nature translates into more emotional balance and focus, plus solution-oriented thinking and clarity. Those who are primarily within enclosed artificial settings often experience more anger, hostility, despair and depression, all negative feelings impacting mental health and wellbeing.

  • Research shares those who spend more time in nature are more intuitive, energetic and consciously attentive (Fuller, Irvine, Devine-Wright, Warren, & Gaston, 2007; Keniger, Gaston, Irvine, & Fuller, 2013).

  • People who enjoy nature and green spaces gain greater social connection with friends and family members as well as their surrounding neighborhood and communities.

Maximizing Nature’s Health Benefits

Numerous studies have analyzed how much time is required to reap the most benefits outdoor nature experiences offer. In one such study, at least 20 minutes a day is recommended to be outdoors to maximize stress relief benefits.

An April 2022 study indicates walking outdoors for 15 minutes daily offers significant reduction in dementia risk.

According to a 2019 study, spending at least 120 minutes in nature per week can significantly boost personal health and wellbeing. You can go for a 2-hour chunk spent outside all at once or break it up into smaller daily segments.

Either way you manage your time spent outdoors in nature greatly benefits your overall physical health and wellbeing.

Outdoor Family Activities

Getting outdoors is a year-round activity you and your family can enjoy. Even though seasons and temperatures change, you can adapt favorite outdoor activities or try different ones to continue reaping the health benefits nature provides throughout the year. You and your family can:

  • explore hiking trails.
  • go birdwatching.
  • search for a variety of wildlife.
  • identify native wildflowers, fungi and plants.
  • work outside or take an hourly nature break to rejuvenate. 
  • check out and enjoy playground equipment at every park near your neighborhood.
  • have a family game of catch, kickball, tag or Frisbee® -- or make up your own game.
  • enjoy swimming or scuba diving.
  • go to the beach.
  • take a camping trip (even in your own backyard.)
  • go kayaking.
  • explore fishing.
  • go snowmobiling,
  • enjoy either cross-country or Alpine skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing. 
  • have a bonfire.
  • keep a nature journal.
  • fly a kite.
  • make a snowman or snow angel.
  • go sledding and/or ice skating.
  • have a friendly snowball fight.
  • jump in a pile of leaves.
  • build a leaf fort or snow igloo.
  • go for a walk around the block.
  • take a bike ride.
  • stargaze, identify constellations and watch out for meteors in the evening skies.
  • visit your favorite state or national park or explore ones you haven’t yet visited.

No matter what activities you choose, getting outside now and throughout the year provides a significant boost to you and your family’s health and wellbeing. Your local Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health professionals and support staff is here to answer your questions and address your concerns about nature’s many health benefits or any women’s health issue. Our premier group of women’s health experts prioritize your personal health care and treatment, so you enjoy a long, quality life.

Sources:

https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-play-outside-day-first-saturday...
https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
https://www.healthline.com/health/health-benefits-of-being-outdoors
https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/wellness-benefits-great-outdoors
https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2022/01/winter-physical-...
https://healthmatters.wphospital.org/blog/january/2021/my-doctor-told-me...
https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/the-mental-and-physical-benefits...
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4204431/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8125471/
https://positivepsychology.com/positive-effects-of-nature/

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