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Why time outside is so important for overall health

If you find yourself feeling sluggish, stressed or sleepless, ask yourself how long it’s been since you spent time outside.

There’s growing evidence that contact with nature has a positive association with good health and wellbeing. In fact, many doctors around the world are even prescribing time in nature (often called ‘green prescriptions’) to address chronic diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle.

Research suggests that 120 minutes a week may be the minimum time the doctor should prescribe in order for people to take advantage of innumerable health benefits.

Fortunately, you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to reap the rewards of green time. Commit to time outside on a regular basis and you’ll enjoy these rewards among many others.

1. Time outside helps your immune system work more efficiently

A growing body of evidence has pointed to many immunological benefits of time in nature. This is due to many factors, including exposure to phytoncides, which are microbes found in soil and trees that work with the body’s natural killer cells to fight infections.

Another reason is that being in nature switches on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, or ‘rest and digest’ mode. In this mode (which is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, or ‘fight or flight’ response), the body has time to devote resources to areas that have long-term good health outcomes – like building a strong immune system.

2. Improved air quality outside reduces your exposure to pollutants

It’s been well-documented that poor air quality can cause health problems, particularly of the heart and lungs. There is even evidence to suggest that air pollution contributes substantially to major diseases like lung cancer.

Studies have shown many times that air quality inside is more polluted than outdoor air – even if you live in a major city. So, getting outside is crucial to limiting your pollution exposure. If you can get off the beaten track into a fully natural environment like the bush, lake, forest or beach, all the better.

3. Being outside improves your sleep quality

Exposure to natural light is the most powerful cue for your body’s natural clock. Being outside allows this clock to be more in tune with nature’s light/dark cycle and goes a long way to counteracting the impact of artificial light in our everyday life. Just a few minutes outside first thing in the morning resets your circadian rhythm so you fall asleep faster at night.

4. Being outside can increase your motivation to exercise

Exercising outdoors is charmingly termed ‘green exercise’ and it’s been shown to be more extrinsically motivating than exercising inside. That’s because green exercise feels more like an escape from everyday life which makes the exertion feel easier and more enjoyable.

In general, people who exercise outdoors report greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement. You’re also more likely to feel social when you’re exercising outside, which helps you feel more connected and more likely to want to keep being active with a friend or friends.

So, if you’re finding it hard to stick to an indoor exercise program, take it outside and see how you go.

5. Sunlight can ease the symptoms of depression

Decreased sun exposure has been associated with a drop in serotonin levels, which can lead to depression. A lack of direct sunlight can also decrease levels of vitamin D, which plays a major role in regulating mood.

Both of which mean that spending some time in the sunshine could well make you feel happier. Just be mindful of the best time of day to get that sunshine in with minimal UV exposure (check the BOM UV index before you head out).

6. Outdoor time can increase optimism and reduce stress

The Japanese art of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ has been shown to increase feelings of ‘liveliness’ and significantly reduce stress. Being immersed in the sounds, smells and sights of the forest is thought to be a critical part of shinrin-yoku, so the walk is meditative as well as good exercise. 

An equivalent Aussie version might be taking a mindful, undistracted bushwalk where you are entirely focused in the moment. Now, doesn’t that sound like something everyone should be doing regularly?