In all honesty, Mother Nature may find the indoor world pretty tough to compete with sometimes. After all, she can’t offer flat-screen TVs, air conditioning, or WiFi. But she might potentially offer something even more important: improved health, by way of a stronger immune system, better sleep, and reduced stress.
Spending time outdoors can boost physical and mental health in a range of ways. You don’t have to spend hours at a time outside before those benefits kick in, either.
According to a 2019 study that included data from 19,806 participants, spending at least 120 minutes in nature per week can significantly boost health and well-being. You can go for a 2-hour chunk all at once, or break it up into smaller daily segments — the benefits still hold.
Even without any greenery around, spending time in sunlight and fresh air may help you feel better in mind and body.
Below, you’ll find 8 health benefits of spending time outside.
Air pollution can trigger allergies, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, which you may already know. It might surprise you to learn, though, that indoor concentrations of air pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations.
But spending more time in natural green spaces could help lower your risk of respiratory concerns.
One 2016 study examining the relationship between local greenery and mortality risk followed 108,630 women for 8 years. Compared to people with the least greenery in their neighborhoods, people with the most greenery were 34 percent less likely to die from respiratory diseases.
You’ll generally find the freshest air in places with high air circulation. For example, camping in an open field may give you more relief from pollution than resting along a river walled in by skyscrapers and factories.
Typically, your body’s internal clock follows the sun, making you feel awake during the daytime and sleepy at night. Although artificial illumination can mimic natural light, direct sunlight has 200 times the intensity of office lights in a closed room. As a result, sunlight affects your circadian rhythm more than electric light.
Exposing yourself to sunlight can improve your sleep by:
- helping you feel more tired at night
- shortening the time it takes to fall asleep
- improving the quality of your rest
The nice thing about sunlight? It doesn’t cost a thing. To get a daily dose, you only need to step outdoors.
Just keep in mind that sunlight needs to enter your eyes to affect your circadian rhythm. If you’re hoping to improve your sleep, picnicking at the beach may help more than napping in a shady wooded area.
Sunlight can often help ease depression symptoms like low mood and fatigue.
Light therapy can help treat both major depression and seasonal depression. If you have seasonal depression, you may notice improvement after a few days . If you have major depression, it may take up to 2 to 5 weeks before you notice improvement.
Experts still aren’t completely sure how sunlight affects depression.
Some people believe sunlight has a protective effect since it can help your body produce vitamin D. It’s also possible that sunlight improves sleep, which in turn reduces the severity of depression symptoms.
If depression has sapped your energy, you can still get sunlight fairly easily. Try absorbing your daily dose while eating lunch, reading a book, or doing some good, old-fashioned sun-bathing — just don’t forget the sunscreen.
Working out in green spaces could help boost your motivation to exercise in the future, in part because outdoor exercise can:
- offer a nice change of pace from gyms and make physical activity more interesting and enjoyable
- make it easier to socialize, as many gyms have unspoken rules about not chatting to the person on the treadmill next to yours.
- feel easier and less strenuous, according to 2013 research suggesting people who walk outside tend to exercise at a greater intensity and report less exertion
You don’t have to bike a triathlon or ski down a mountain to enjoy exercise in nature. Any activity that gets your body moving in a way that’s doable for you, like gardening, playing with your dog at the park, or washing your car, can offer some health benefits.
The modern world contains plenty of intrusive stimuli — flashing screens, vibrating phones, rumbling roadways — that compete for our limited attention. This ongoing overstimulation may raise your stress levels without you even realizing it.
The natural world, on the other hand, can offer a mental and emotional refuge when you need to unwind and recharge. In nature, soothing attractions for your senses, from the perfume of flowers to the music of bird song, can hold your attention without draining your mental energy.
Research from 2020 suggests spending time in nature can help you feel more relaxed and focused, especially when you take the time to notice your surroundings. To get these benefits, you might consider doing slow-paced, contemplative activities like hiking in the woods or kayaking on a lake.
Expert guidance suggests you’re less likely to contract the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), not to mention other viruses, when outside. That’s because air circulation can dilute the presence of viruses in the air. In fact, according to 2021 research, the chances of transmission are 18.7 times higher indoors than outdoors.
Even ignoring the pandemic for the moment, spending time outdoors can still help your immune system function optimally. Microorganisms found in nature that aren’t dangerous can run practice drills with your immune system, in a manner of speaking, to help prepare it for more serious infections.
If you live your life in a completely sterile environment, your immune system can lose its ability to recognize what is and isn’t dangerous. It may then set off a red alert for any microorganism it comes across, which can lead to chronic inflammation .
So, while soap is a wonderful invention, getting muddy once in a while can be good for you, too.
There’s some evidence to suggest children who spend plenty of time outside have a lower chance of developing myopia, or nearsightedness.
One 2020 study included 10,743 children between the ages of 9 and 11 in Taipei. Researchers found that children who spent more time outside at recess were 22 percent less likely to develop myopia than their peers.
Increasing the eye-work distance when doing close-up work and taking a break after 30 minutes of close-up work also offered some protection.
Experts have suggested a few potential reasons why spending time outside might help protect against myopia:
- Natural light offers a brighter and richer collection of light wavelengths to see with.
- The outdoors lets your eye practice looking at objects from various distances.
- Light stimulates the retina to produce dopamine, which prevents your eyeball from stretching out and warping your vision. This theory has only been tested in animals, though.
This benefit only seems to affect the eye while it grows, so spending time outside can’t reverse myopia in adulthood.
However, regular outdoor activities in childhood, like playing catch, swimming, and going sledding might just save your kid a trip to the optometrist down the line. An added bonus: They also offer great opportunities for family bonding.
Outdoor time can do more than help relieve unwanted or painful emotions like fear, worry, and sadness. It may also help promote emotions you want to feel more of, like happiness, peace, and optimism.
Going outside at night can also leave you with a sense of awe and connection with the world. Plus, the drop in noise and light can help you focus on the world around you more easily. If you’d like to forge a deeper or more spiritual connection with the nighttime natural world, consider nocturnal activities like stargazing or night fishing.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that a whole world really does exist outside your window.
Making a habit of spending regular time outdoors, especially in nature, can do a lot to boost physical and emotional wellness. It can also go a long way toward strengthening your bond with the planet, or Mother Nature herself.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.