Why Spending More Time Outside Could Save Your Life
Last Updated: Aug 31, 2016
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Venturing into the great outdoors this Labor Day weekend could save your life. Well, kind of.
From low energy to feeling sick, over the past decade more and more research has emerged touting the impacts of nature on physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Here’s a look at how some fresh air and sunshine could possibly be an easy (and fun) prescription for whatever ails you.
IT BOOSTS IMMUNITY
Long recognized as a treatment for stress in Japan, “forest bathing” can also have a substantial impact on the immune system. A paper published by the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that forests can enhance anticancer proteins and natural “killer cell” activity, which targets tumor cells.
So how exactly does one bathe in a forest? Researchers describe it as “visiting a forest park for relaxation and recreation while breathing in volatile substances called phytoncides (wood essential oils).” In addition to reducing stress and strengthening immunity, researchers noticed that time spent in forests leads to a decrease in blood pressure and reduction of cortisol, the stress hormone that contributes to weight gain.
Related: Healthy Parks Health People Central: Forest environments enhance human immune function
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IT REDUCES THE RISK OF DEPRESSION
When you need to shake off any negative thoughts, take a walk — preferably through a grassy area brimming with trees and shrubs.
According to a Stanford University study, taking a 90-minute walk through a natural grassy area with trees and shurbs showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain that’s active when experiencing negative emotions or depression — as compared with those who walked through an urban setting.
And if you want to make a better mood a mainstay of daily living, reconsider where you call home. Researchers estimate that those who live in an urban environment have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders compared with those who live in rural areas.
Related: PNAS: Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
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IT IMPROVES MEMORY AND FOCUS
Got a big exam on the horizon? Head outdoors and seek out some greenery whenever you sense that mental fatigue setting in.
A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that walking in nature, even in frigid temperatures, helped improve memory and attention scores by 20 percent compared with those who walked along city streets.
Furthermore, another study in the American Journal of Public Health found that children with ADHD tended to have better focus when in green, outdoor settings.
Related: Michigan News University of Michigan: Going outside -- even in the cold -- improves memory, attention
IT SPEEDS UP THE HEALING PROCESS
There’s a reason why hospitals have incorporated more gardens in recent years, and it’s not just to beautify the dull landscaping. Research has found that nature can actually speed up the recovery process.
The first groundbreaking study on the subject, done in 1984, found that patients with access to a view of nature healed one day faster on average, required less pain medication and had less postsurgical complications than patients whose rooms restricted any glimpse of the outdoors.
According to Scientific American, a recent survey of 100 directors and architects of assisted-living residences found that 82 percent agreed that outdoor space should be one of the most important considerations when designing a new facility.
Related: Scientific American: How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal
IT CURBS STRESS
When you need a quick fix for stress, step outside for precisely three minutes and look at the trees. That’s how quickly nature can alleviate our stress levels, according to the same researcher who conducted the study on hospital gardens.
And another study, this one published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that simply listening to a nature soundscape, such as the sounds of birds chirping or a waterfall, can also combat stress by inducing a positive emotional state.
Related: Los Angeles Times: Nature Has Charms That Can Reduce Stress
IT EASES AGGRESSION
Even if you can’t physically get outside, merely simulating the outdoors can have impactful health benefits, especially when you feel your temper starting to rise.
Administrators at Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon tested this theory with their Nature Imagery Project, which allowed inmates to watch nature films during recreational time that depicted scenes of oceans, forests and rivers. The result? The inmates who regularly watched the films committed 26 percent fewer violent offenses in the correctional facility than those who hadn’t. They also exhibited less aggression, distress, irritability and nervousness.
Related: Popular Science: Nature Videos Make Prisoners Less Violent
IT HELPS WITH SLEEP
Better sleep starts with going outside to soak up the sunshine or, at the very least, seeing the sun as often as you can throughout the day.
According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, those who had more exposure to natural light slept an average of 46 more minutes per night.
The study also highlighted some ancillary benefits among those who got more sunshine, including being more physically active and, in general, happier. And for any parent struggling with a baby who isn’t sleeping well, research suggests that getting some fresh air every afternoon may help them as well.
Related: UC Health: Increase Daytime Light Exposure for Better Sleep at Night
IT STRENGTHENS FAMILY BONDING
The family who plays outside together stays together.
Researchers at the University of Illinois discovered that family-based activities in nature can nurture a family’s sense of identity and belonging, especially if those activities become regular rituals.
In addition to getting away from the day-to-day routine, a morning hike or an afternoon at the park reduces mental fatigue and restores attention — two key contributors in helping family members get along.
Related: PsychCentral: Outdoor Functions Can Improve Family Bonding
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have you ever found that spending time outside helped with stress, focus, sleep or any of the other things on our list? When you take some time to go outside, why do you do it? What are some things you do when you want to spend time outdoors? Will you be changing any of your habits (or where you live!) because of this information? Let us know in the comments section!
Related: LIVESTRONG.COM: The Benefits of Outdoor Play for Children
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