By Claire Copley | email@example.com
Winter is closing in on us – again. For many, this means spending more time indoors. According to one government estimate, the average American spends 90% of his or her life indoors, and as we get older we can become even more housebound, especially in winter. Cold temperatures, icy conditions and snow – covered ground limits where and how we can spend time outdoors. But we should consider the health benefits we are sacrificing by foregoing outdoor activities. There is a growing body of scientific research that shows simply being outside has inherent health benefits. Physical benefits include increased Vitamin D levels, improved eye health, lower blood pressure, cleaner air to the lungs, and stronger immune systems.
There is substantial evidence that being in- and interacting with natural environments has other positive effects on our health. Nature reduces stress and increases the ability to cope, decreases mental fatigue and improves concentration and cognitive function. Spending time in nature can actually increase our ability to focus and concentrate (even in children with ADHD diagnoses), speed recovery from illness or surgery, increase our energy level, and improve the quality of our sleep.
It’s difficult to tell from the studies exactly why people feel better in natural environments. Is it the fresh air? Do certain colors or shapes or smells trigger neurochemicals in our visual cortex? Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, though skeptical at first, conducted a study that found less death and disease in people who lived near parks or other green space – even if they didn’t use them! “Our own studies plus others show these restorative effects whether you’ve gone for walks or not,” Mitchell says. So, the effects are not from exercise, but from simply from being outside.
Natural sunlight falling on our skin allows the body to manufacture exactly the Vitamin D that we need, yet for those of us in northern climates, Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common. Four in ten Americans are deficient in Vitamin D. Vitamin D production is affected by age: people over 65 generate about a fourth as much as people in their 20s.
Vitamin D is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system. Those who don’t have sufficient Vitamin D are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name just a few. We need Vitamin D for bone growth, cell growth, inflammation reduction, and neuromuscular and immune function. Getting enough sunlight has also been linked with the prevention of diabetes, auto-immune disorders, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease.
Vitamin D helps you sleep better at night, thereby improving mood and endurance. Just 15 minutes of natural sunlight per day is known to reduce depression and anxiety levels. A study from the Saint Louis University School of Medicine noted that natural sunlight helps set our body’s internal clocks. And the better rested we are, the better our mood and mental state.
In our area, it can be difficult to get natural sunlight in winter. The days are mostly grey and we must wear layers of protective clothing all winter. So how do we get sun in the Winter? Ten to fifteen minutes of sun falling directly onto the face and arms can be enough to keep our Vitamin D levels up. While we can take Vitamin D supplements, there is no substitute for natural sunlight.
We all hear about the damaging effects of stress. And yet, stress can be very hard to identify or control. Numerous studies show that both exercising outdoors and simply sitting looking at trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Being outside daily has been shown to reduce stress levels, which can have scientifically measurable impacts on our health, like boosting our immune systems.
Seattle-based environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagon explains, “Just looking at a garden or trees or going for a walk, even if it’s in your own neighborhood, reduces stress,” she says. “I don’t think anyone understands why, but there’s something about being in a natural setting that shows clear evidence of stress reduction, including physiological evidence – like lower heart rate.”
There are several theories about how nature impacts our stress levels. Nature stimulates our brain receptors and engages our senses, which seems to be how we receive these benefits. The smell of many flowers, including jasmine, lilacs and roses, have been proven to decrease stress and increase relaxation (though this doesn’t help us much in the winter). The scent of fresh pine has been shown to lessen depression and anxiety. Color has also been identified as beneficial for people’s brains.
Indoor vs. outdoor air
Of course, fresh air has long been known to improve health (our mothers were right!). Outdoor pollution is bad for your health, but indoor pollutants are far worse. The EPA New England states that indoor pollutants are normally two to five (and up to 100) times higher than outdoor pollutants. And according to the California Air Resources Board “…indoor air-pollutants are 25-62% greater than outside levels and this difference poses a serious risk to health.” Such health risks include heart disease, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and asthmatic attacks. In our area, outdoor pollution is minimal, but indoor pollution can be problematic, what with winter heating, and closed windows. In polluted or indoor environments, the body has to work harder to get the oxygen it needs to function. This raises your heart rate and blood pressure. All organs, tissues, and cells in the body need oxygen, so taking action to ensure adequate oxygen intake is important.
Unpolluted oxygen is more available to your lungs when you are outdoors. Levels of oxygen in your brain are tied to levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects your mood, appetite, memory, social behavior, and other processes. Too much serotonin and you can become irritable and tense, but too little serotonin and you can become depressed. Breathing fresh air can increase your oxygen levels and therefore help regulate your levels of serotonin, promoting happiness and well-being.
The negative ion-rich oxygen found in nature also has a relaxing effect on the body. To put things in perspective, the Los Angeles freeway has a negative ion count of below 100 per cubic centimeter, while the area around a large waterfall can boast a negative ion count of 100,000 per cubic centimeter (average fresh air has 2,000 – 4,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter).
Nature’s calming effect comes from not only the fresh air and negative ions, but also from the ground itself. Research done by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacterium commonly found in soil, can act as a natural antidepressant by increasing the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that control cognitive function and mood. The bacteria can also decrease inflammation in your immune system, thereby alleviating health issues from heart disease to diabetes.
Researchers at the University of Essex in England are advancing the notion that exercising in the presence of nature has added rewards, particularly for mental health. Their investigations into “green exercise,” as they are calling it, dovetails with research showing benefits from living in proximity to green, open spaces.
Physical activity itself tends to improve our mood; we intuitively understand this to be true. With dopamine and endorphins flowing freely when we move our bodies, this positive feedback is often a sought-after reason for chasing down a good workout. Who doesn’t feel good after a good movement session? As it turns out, exercising outdoors increases this effect, producing improvements in mood and self-esteem above and beyond that of exercise alone. Green exercise makes you feel better than the same exercise performed indoors.
When we talk about green exercise, we speak about anything from rock-climbing to taking a walk. While I love nature, I am not one to go on long bicycle rides, hikes, or downhill skiing. But the benefits seem to be the same whether you are actively exercising or simply staring at the distant hills. The important thing is that we engage in nature.
Other proven benefits
Studies have shown that patients recover from surgery faster and better when they have a “green” view. Hospital patients may be stressed from a variety of factors, including pain, fear, and disruption of normal routine. Research found that patients with “green” views had shorter postoperative stays, took fewer painkillers, and have slightly fewer postsurgical complications compared to those who had no view or a view of a cement wall.
Another documented benefit of spending time outdoors is sharpening our focus and increasing ability to concentrate. This could be a result of improved oxygen and serotonin levels. One study compared concentration between children with ADHD who played outside, versus those who played inside. Kids who spent time in green, outdoor spaces demonstrated fewer symptoms of ADHD, even when the exact same activities were compared.
Being outdoors can also improve your eye health. So many of us spend too much screen time in general and this can have negative effects on our eyes. Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), is the term used to describe eye problems caused by staring at a screen close to your face for prolonged periods. If you work on a computer or watch TV, you’re at risk of developing the symptoms associated with CVS: blurred vision, double vision, dry/red eyes, eye irritation, headaches and neck or back pain. Getting outside and focusing on objects farther away can help to prevent and even reverse these symptoms. New research is showing that our ever-increased exposure to artificial light may be having a negative impact on nearsightedness. Artificial light is a problem; natural light is the solution.
It’s all very mysterious why nature has such a profound effect on our health. Yet as more and more research is done there is no question about it. What does it mean for us? Get outside! If we spend a half hour a day taking a walk, raking leaves, hanging laundry on the line, or just gazing at the view we are improving our health and well-being.
Here in Dutchess County, NY, [where Claire lives] it is so easy, even in winter, to reap the benefits that researchers say are ours for the taking. So, take a walk, spend some time in the yard, or just look around you. We live in a magnificent surrounding. Engaging with it in any way you can will benefit your health and well-being. •