Updated: Feb 17
Benefits of being outdoors
Do you spend time playing outside? Sun on your face and wind in your hair. Enjoying the freedom. The fun. That joy isn't just in your head. Researchers have found that getting out into nature has a multitude of benefits: preventing illness, reducing stress, and promoting well being.
In a study of regular smokers, researchers found that simply looking at pictures of nature reduced the number of cigarettes smoked when compared to viewing urban scenes. Living near green spaces is associated with lowered risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and reduced mental distress. Nature is good for us. Time to get outside!
How much time for the most benefit?
We're all so busy it can be challenging to think of adding in one more thing to a long list of to-do's. How long do we need to spend outside in order to start reaping some of the those sweet benefits?
A 2019 study examined the amount of recreational time spent outdoors (at parks and beaches, in the countryside and woods) and self-reported physical health and life satisfaction.
The benefits to health and happiness started to accrue at 120 minutes. Two hours a week. And the benefits accrued whether the time spent outside included physical activity or not.
"I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together." –John Burroughs
No need to break a sweat to reap a reward according to this study. And the 120 minutes didn't need to be consecutive to add up to big rewards. Benefits peaked at durations of 200-300 minutes a week.
Researchers didn't look at the correlation between the biodiversity of the outdoors and the results, but other studies have suggested that increased biodiversity increases the benefit to human health and well being.
Time spent gardening was also excluded from the study but has well-documented benefits. Researchers have lots of follow up questions and suggestions for further study, but we don't have to wait for more research results to start putting nature into our regular self-care practices.
Observe your usual
Before you decide you're going to spend the next 3 months out on the trail àla Cheryl Strayed, take time to notice what you do now. Look back at your week and see if you made it out into nature.
What did you do? Estimate how many minutes you were outside. Was it fun? If not, think about how you might make being in nature more joyful.
You might need a few things to make being outside more pleasurable. Basics like sun and insect protection, water, and a good snack can make a big difference in your comfort and enjoyment.
Plan to play outdoors
If time outside isn't a part of your regular weekly routine, it's time to plan. A 20 minute walk most days of the week would get you there, but there are a multitude of other ways to add up those minutes and start feeling happier and healthier.
watch the sunrise or sunset
read a book in a chair or hammock, along the coast or in the shade of a tree
fly a kite
start a new hobby like birdwatching, nature photography, archery, geocaching, plein air painting, fishing, horseback riding, or astronomy
take up a paddle sport: kayak, raft, canoe, SUP
have a picnic
collect shells, rocks, feathers, leaves, acorns, pinecones
take a day trip to a state or national park (free if you have a 4th grader!)
find a u-pick farm and harvest some fresh produce
volunteer: many parks are looking for docents to talk to visitors, remove non-native species, work on trails or restore plantings and habitat
take a class and learn to play golf, practice yoga outdoors, ski (water or snow), or take up sailing
go on vacation with a plan to play outside
go mural hunting in a new neighborhood
exercise outdoors: walk, run, hike, bike, swim, snorkel, rock climb, surf
Research data is helpful in guiding our behavior, inspiring us to make new choices and try new things, but use your own experiences as the ultimate guide. Feast your eyes on this definition of recreation:
noun activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.
This is play time, recess for grown ups. There are plenty of choices and no one is going home mad if you prefer tetherball to four square. Prioritize enjoyment so that you just can't believe 120 minutes flew by.
Commit to try spending a few more minutes outside this week and see what you notice. Do you feel a little refreshed, a little clearer? Let me know what you try and how you felt in the comments below!