As most Americans have heard, we need to get out more. Intuitively, it makes sense that time spent out in nature is good for us, and helps us ward off obvious health issues like obesity. But researchers have found much more than that. Whether you’re 5, 25, 50 or 95, think about these quirky benefits of nature today—they just might motivate you to spend some more minutes in the great outdoors.
A Breath of Fresh Air
As wonderful as sunlight can be for your health (when wearing appropriate sunscreen!), there are lots of other things outdoors that also tout health benefits. For example, consistent and early exposure to natural bacteria and allergens has been shown to reduce the prevalence of conditions like asthma and allergies in children, with benefits extending into adulthood. Much of this research is based on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989, which suggests that children build up immunity as they touch natural things, which harbor natural bacteria, and introduce those microorganisms to their developing immune systems through behaviors like thumb-sucking. These behaviors are also suggested to introduce symbiotic microflora, like gut bacteria, which studies are suggesting play a role in life-long metabolism and general health.
Even if you weren’t an outdoorsy kid, studies suggest looking at trees and breathing fresh, outdoor air can reduce feelings of anger, stress, confusion and anxiety, and even speed up hospital recovery times. This is thought to be due to the hormones our brains release in association with feelings of awe and chemicals plants release naturally, such as those used in aromatherapy.
Exercising anywhere can help us shed unwanted weight, but a variety of studies from the United Kingdom, U.S. and Australia are suggesting that outdoor exercise can have more benefits than the same exercises done indoors. For instance, running or walking outdoors rather than on a treadmill requires your ankles to respond to minute imperfections in the ground, as well as occasionally going downhill (not easily simulated on a treadmill) or into the wind. Wind drag also adds significant resistance for cyclists. All these minute differences engage more muscle groups, put less repetitive stress on joints and lead to burning a few extra calories over the same distance. The visual stimulation from being outside also prevents boredom, which helped participants enjoy their workouts more, feel more inclined to go out again and exercise for longer than they would indoors.
Cues to Snooze
Parents often assume having their kids run around outside tuckers them out enough for a good night’s sleep. Turns out, both kids’ and adults’ sleep routines improve with consistent outdoor activity, and it’s not entirely because of the exercise. Variation in natural light levels helps cue our brains in on what time of day it is by triggering increased production of the neurotransmitter serotonin (more on that later) in bright sunlight, and later the conversion of that serotonin to melatonin when it’s dark. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sensations of sleepiness and circadian rhythms, or the time your body inherently wants to spend asleep and awake. Melatonin also helps induce the deep sleep, or REM cycles, that help your brain form new memories and make you feel rested when you wake up. Studies suggest the effects are particularly beneficial with exposure to sunlight in the early morning.
Remember that serotonin? Studies show this neurotransmitter, like dopamine, is related to levels of happiness. Data was so overwhelming that the development of popular SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibiter) anti-depressants like Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft was based on keeping more serotonin molecules actively signaling in the synapses of patients’ brains. Recent studies suggest that’s not actually what SSRIs do, but they’re effective for other reasons still being studied, and the best way to get more serotonin to your brain is to signal your body to make more of it. If you’re exercising while outdoors, all the better—physical activity boosts serotonin production too, even if it’s not overly strenuous.
In 2013, multiple studies found sunlight can also help manage one of the most common neurological disorders in the U.S.: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADD or ADHD. ADHD is generally characterized by an inability to focus, sit still or otherwise control behaviors appropriate for the patients’ age. Although ADHD is prevalent in approximately 5 percent of both children and adults and widely studied, a cause has not yet been determined. How sunlight helps is not entirely understood, but is thought to be related to the regulation of circadian rhythms mentioned above. Researchers found a lower prevalence of ADHD at latitudes closer to the equator, which receive more intense sunlight than areas further south or north.
Think Like an Elephant
The great outdoors can also improve your memory. As mentioned before, sunlight helps regulate melatonin, which regulates sleep, which affects how our memories are formed. Although there’s not a lot of data on this as people age, limited physical capacity can limit the time they spend outdoors. According to several studies from the U.S. and Canada, that may be the opposite of what should be happening for the sake of aging individuals’ physical and mental health. Time spent engaging in outdoor activities like gardening was found not only to improve moods, but to stave off the effects of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
See Some Green to Save Some Green
While consistent exercise of any kind can benefit your health, two big perks of exercising outdoors are that most locations are free to use and you don’t need much equipment, which can make fitness easier to fit in your budget. Iowa state parks and recreation areas are particularly scenic options. Time spent outdoors can also save you money by helping prevent injuries, high blood pressure, heart conditions, cancers and depression that would rack up big bills at the doctors office.
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