Following the pandemic, our appreciation for the outdoors has never been higher.
According to a recent survey by Natural England, nearly half of adults spend more time outdoors than before the pandemic. Close to 40% of those surveyed also said that nature and wildlife were more important to their wellbeing than ever before.
Here I’ll be looking at six health benefits that make the outdoors so important for physical and mental health.
You’ve probably heard about the calming effect of nature, but how does it work?
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, helps us cope with short-term stressful situations. If levels remain high for too long, it can increase the risk of health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease and insomnia.
Being outdoors has been found to lower the production of this hormone, which helps you to feel more relaxed. The same report also found that being outdoors can help lower heart rates and blood pressure.
Spending time outdoors encourages you to be more active, which helps improve your physical fitness. This isn’t just about looking toned, being more active has many positive physical and mental outcomes.
Regular exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep through the night. It can also boost your energy levels during the day and reduce the risk of multiple diseases and health problems.
Exercise doesn’t require a gym membership or special equipment either – it can be as easy as walking or cycling instead of driving or getting the bus. The natural hills and dips are also good for making your body work harder if your goal is to burn calories or get more rigorous exercise.
Many public parks also have at least some outdoor gym equipment if you want to get the best of both worlds.
Light and air
Being outdoors also means getting the benefit of natural light and fresh air.
Vitamin D, for instance, is important for keeping your bones, blood cells and immune system strong and healthy – and your body needs sunlight to make it. Just 5-15 minutes of sunlight a few times a week is enough to help. You may need longer when the weather is duller – just remember to pop a raincoat and a windproof umbrella in your backpack to keep you sheltered from the elements.
Sunshine and fresh air also help with the production of serotonin – the happy hormone. Serotonin can stabilise your mood, reduce feelings of anxiety, and it also has positive physical impacts, including improving sleep and digestion.
Like exercise, spending time in natural light during the day helps you sleep better by assisting in the normal rhythm of your internal clock.
Taking time to appreciate the life around you, whether birds, flowers, animals or even insects, can help build your connection with nature.
Running your toes through the grass may seem a bit cliché, but touch is a great way to build this connection. So are other ways you engage your senses through nature, like listening to birdsong or smelling flowers.
In turn, this can generate positive feelings like calmness, joy, and creativity.
In our day-to-day lives, we can be surrounded by noise, from traffic to construction work and the seemingly never-ending bleep of notifications.
Outdoors offers valuable peace and quiet, allowing you to escape the everyday stresses and worries into a state of calmness.
It acts as a mental break and can help you refocus your thoughts, improve your cognitive functioning, and boost your creative problem-solving ability.
More time outside means more opportunities for socialising and getting involved in your local community as well. Volunteering at a community garden, for example, is a great way to connect with nature while meeting new people – so you get the wellbeing benefits of both!
If you’re short on time, even a walk on your lunch break with a friend or colleague can have a positive impact and give you a proper break away from your desk.
With our increasingly hectic lives, spending more time in nature can be easier said than done. However, the health benefits of getting outdoors are well worth the time and effort.
One study found that 120 minutes in nature every week is enough to be associated with good health and wellbeing, so spare a few minutes each day to get out and appreciate the world around you.