Going Outside to Help Your Inside – The Benefits of Being Active in the Outdoors
Updated: Aug 31, 2023
From watering the flowers in your garden to reaching the summit of Mt Everest, there’s no denying the benefits of being active in the outdoors. I wouldn’t advocate going from miracle grow to mountaineer but somewhere in the middle is definitely a good place to start.
We’re all well versed in the benefits of physical activity. Prevention of chronic illness, improved mood, reduction in stress levels, and many more. But taking things out in to nature seem to have just that little bit more of a positive impact. A study done in 2019 on 19,000 participants concluded that spending 120 minutes in nature each week results in marked improvements in overall health and wellbeing.
We were fortunate enough to climb the highest mountain in North Africa this past August, which admittedly is taking ‘being in the outdoors’ to the extreme, but we definitely felt the benefits first hand, from marked improvements in our physical fitness, to an all round more positive mental outlook and improved mood.
Admittedly the climb wasn’t easy, and there were times where we wanted to kill each other, but this in itself helped us to develop resilience and brought us closer as a group, and believe me, being 4000m above sea level with limited water in 30 degree heat, you want to be surrounded by resilient people!
One thing we all agreed on was how great we felt once we got back to camp…not just because it had running water and a toilet, but because we’d stood toe to toe with mother nature and came back unscathed…minus a few cuts and bruises…and altitude sickness…and unplanned bowel movements…but y’know.
The health benefits of being outdoors are actually quite remarkable. The first one I think a lot of people take for granted is the ability to breathe actual good quality air. Air pollution can trigger asthma, allergic reactions, and many other respiratory issues, so being able to breathe air with less pollution obviously has the reverse effect. Studies looking at the relation between local greenery and mortality risk have found that people surrounded by the most greenery were 34% less likely to contract and die from respiratory related issues.
Another overlooked benefit to being in the outdoors is how it positively impacts your circadian rhythm and sleep quality. For those of you not familiar with circadian rhythm, it is basically an internal process within the body that regulates our sleep/wake cycle that responds directly to our environment. Simply put, our body clock tends to follow the sun, as the sun rises we wake up, as the sun sets we go to sleep. Being outdoors exposes you to more sunlight, which in turn keeps your circadian rhythm in sync with the rising and setting of the sun. The more exposure to sunlight the more tired we tend to feel of an evening, which in turn shortens the time it takes us to fall asleep, which then improves overall sleep quality. There are however some artificial light sources that we need to be wary of that can mimic sunlight, but that’s a rabbit hole all in itself so we’ll save that for a different blog (link to sleep and recovery blog).
With the increase in focus on workplace mental health, it is more important than ever to ensure we prioritise our mental wellbeing as much as our physical. Being in the outdoors has been shown to often ease the symptoms of depression, including fatigue and low mood. Light therapy is a well known treatment to help reduce the symptoms of depression, both major and seasonal (SAD), so it only makes sense to get as much natural light as you can, especially in the winter months, to help maintain a healthy mindset and hopefully reduce any symptoms. Experts are still unsure on just what it is about sunlight that impacts depression, however studies have shown improvements in symptoms in as little as a few days, and marked improvements after 2-5 weeks. Further studies suggest that it is the increase in vitamin D which is the main cause, as this has a ‘protective effect’ on the body and mind. Others suggest it is the improved sleep quality (mentioned above) which contributes to the improved symptoms.
Exercising in outdoor space has been proven to increase motivation to participate in further physical activity in the future. Now I went for a run last week in absolutely biblical weather conditions, a run I almost talked myself out of on more than once occasion. So what I can say is, it was only getting out there that was the difficult part, once I had embraced the ‘why has this silly man showered with his clothes on’ look, I was fine! Exercising outdoors provides a nice change of environment to the same 4 walls of the gym you drag yourself to every morning. The change in sights, sounds and smells (no, not the dog sh*t) has been proven to increase exercise engagement as we stimulate our senses in a way that they are not used to. It also increases the chances of social engagement, as we find ourselves more open to striking up conversations with complete strangers, even if its just that nod of approval to a fellow runner as they pass you in the park (ooooh running friend!). Another study concluded that exercising outdoors felt easier and less strenuous on the whole compared to exercising indoors. It doesn’t even have to be an overly strenuous exercise, it can be light jog around the park, or taking the dog for a walk, or some enthusiastic gardening.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention state that you are less likely to contract harmful viruses and diseases when you are outside due to the increase in air circulation which dilutes the presence of any viruses that may be in the air. A 2021 study on COVID (remember that?) found that transmission was a much as 18% more likely when indoors compared to being outside. Ignoring the pandemic for a moment, or any other potentially harmful virus transmission, spending more time outdoors can help facilitate normal immune system function. Unharmful microorganisms found in nature that aren’t inherently dangerous can ‘test’ your immune system response, to help prepare it for more serious infections that may occur. What we find is that if you spend too long in completely sterile environments your immune system can loose its ability to recognise the difference between dangerous and less harmful viruses and infections, which could then result in the wrong immune response, potentially leading to chronic inflammation and other harmful conditions.
To conclude the above, just get outside, sniff the grass, hug a tree, roll around in the mud, smile at the sun, and embrace the natural playground that we have at our fingertips which is little to no cost to us for the most part. The more we take advantage of what we have available to us in the outdoors the more change we have at staying on top of our physical and mental wellbeing.