Earlier this year, research from the University of Chicago confirmed what we already knew: Time spent in nature is crucial to our health. One psychologist who worked on the research was quoted as saying, “…Nature is not an amenity — it’s a necessity. We need to take it seriously.” Indeed, studies have shown again and again that the outdoors are an antidote to a host of mental and physical health concerns — from cardiovascular disease to alcoholism.
Why, exactly, does nature matter so much to our wellness? No one knows all the specifics, but we do know that safe levels of exposure to the sun — and, specifically, the vitamin D it emits — play a role in insulin production, immune function and mood regulation. Additionally, being outside provides an often much-needed break from the stressors of daily life, including the constant barrage of screens and technology that seem ever-present all around us.
Want to feel better? Here’s what to do: Swap out your nice jewelry for silicone rings, toss on your sunglasses and grab your fave pair of hiking boots, because it’s time to go outside! Here are some of the surprising ways outdoor time can boost your health.
Stronger Bones — When you don’t get outside enough, you risk developing a vitamin D deficiency. One of the most worrisome side effects of a lack of vitamin D is weakened bones. That’s because vitamin D helps the body maintain and absorb calcium and phosphate, which are key to bone health. In fact, prolonged lack of exposure to sunlight has been known to cause severe mineralization disorders — disorders that cause bones to break down faster — such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
Lower Heart Rate — Naturally, people who spend more time in the outdoors are more likely to be physically fit. Exercise helps to strengthen the heart muscles, making them more efficient and allowing them to better pump blood through the body. Outdoor exercises such as swimming, hiking, jogging and cycling simultaneously help you absorb the right amount of vitamin D while conditioning the heart to ward off cardiovascular disease.
Better Mood — There are a few specific ways that spending time outside can help boost your mood and increase your overall mental health and wellness. First and foremost, being outside lowers stress levels. In fact, researchers have found that as little as 20 minutes of nature exposure per day can significantly lower levels of cortisol, “the stress hormone.” When your cortisol levels dip, you experience a few key mood-boosting benefits, including feelings of happiness and a more positive outlook on life. On the other hand, spikes in cortisol can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability and even digestive problems.
Less Anxiety and Depression — Because of the aforementioned dip in stress hormones and a couple more important factors, nature has been proven to lower levels of anxiety. Experts aren’t entirely clear on all the ways nature helps to facilitate happiness, but one study from 2015 showed that people who took a nature walk exhibited lower activity levels in the prefrontal cortex, which is the region that’s the most active when ruminating on negative thoughts. Researchers say that a walk in nature can help kick the brain out of a continuous loop of negative thinking, which can provide therapeutic benefits to sufferers of anxiety and depression.
Stronger Cognitive Performance — Nature can make you healthier and happier, but can it make you smarter, too? Yep, it seems so! A growing body of research has emerged to prove that time spent in nature can improve cognitive function as well, including memory and recall. The research indicates that time spent in relatively secluded nature — that is: not in the center of an urban park — can help boost performance on cognitive tasks. So, the next time you have to take an important test or nail a presentation at work, take a hike or go for a jog in the woods beforehand!
Addiction — Nature therapy is becoming an increasingly more popular approach to dealing with addictions of all sorts, including alcohol and drug addiction. Also known as eco-therapy, this approach can be integrated into a more comprehensive treatment program — alongside psychotherapy and prescription medications — but it has shown especially useful in post-treatment programs. Recovering addicts can use nature therapy to help them effectively manage symptoms. Hiking, cycling, running or even spending an afternoon at the beach or park can help ease the post-rehab symptoms.
Improved Energy — Studies have indicated that time spent in nature can improve one’s energy levels. But why? For one, being outside often translates to aerobic exercise, which of course causes energy levels to spike. A hike in the woods or a swim in the lake can provide an instant oomph. On top of that, research indicates that vitamin D can boost energy.
Better Sleep — Sleep, like nature, is critical to a happy, healthy life, so it can be revolutionary when you combine the two. The reasons why outdoor time contributes to better sleep quality are obvious. Spending time in nature means lowered stress levels and diminished anxiety, which can help you get to sleep and stay asleep for longer. On top of that, time outside can help you burn a ton of energy and will help to put your body into a good position to recharge at night.
As you can see, there are so many excellent reasons to build nature time into your day-to-day schedule. Even a 20- to 30-minute walk in a natural environment can help support your physical and mental health. On top of that, unlike many other therapies, outdoor time comes with very few side effects or downsides. Just remember the sunscreen and be sure to stay hydrated!