Recently, there has been a lot of research and news about the health benefits of being out in nature. So below I have broken down the benefits into the 5 physical health benefits and the 5 mental health benefits of going outside. I have also included links to some of the articles to each item that covers this research in greater detail in case you are interested.
For starters the physical benefits are mostly related in conjunction with the benefits of exercise but there are a few surprises in there too that you might not have known!
Walking has long been credited as an affordable, accessible, and low risk form of exercise but when combined with natural spaces the benefits increase and go beyond just the physical. Some studies have found that exercising in natural spaces that are green can make the exercise feel easier and people are more likely to stick with exercising. Additionally there are many outdoor activities that are more physical than walking to help you get in shape and provide other benefits. This includes activities like hiking rugged terrain, running, yoga, biking, sledding, rock climbing, Nordic skiing, down-hill skiing, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, etc. These activities have varying levels of accessibility and affordability so see what works for you and then get outdoors and do it!
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22857379 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21291246 http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-you-need-go-outside-health-benefits-outdoors-410799 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/22/how-the-outdoors-make-you_n_5508964.html
Increased Vitamin D Intake
Vitamin D is one of the nutrients that can be hard to get enough of as there are not many natural foods that have it. So most of our intake actually comes from sunlight that being said if you spend less time outdoors then your body gets less vitamin D. While it is important to make sure to wear sunscreen to protect from developing skin cancer; vitamin D is important because we need it for cell and bone growth, reducing inflammation, proper immune system functions, and neuromuscular function. Unfortunately you can’t get Vitamin D through your sunscreen covered skin and it is harder to absorb if you have a darker skin tone. This is why Dr. Michael F. Holick, M.D., Ph.D. who has studied vitamin D for decades recommends you go on average 10 to 15 minutes, or one third to a half of the time it takes you to get a mild sunburn, without sunscreen per a day. He calls it “sensible sun exposure” since vitamin D deficiency is linked to lots of problems like a greater risk of rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and seasonal depression. Just by getting the correct amount of sunlight your chance of developing a lot of these illnesses goes down.
Sources: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/29/vitamin-d-deficiency-signs-symptoms_n_5200408.html https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/22/how-the-outdoors-make-you_n_5508964.html
A study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that campers had an easier time resetting their internal clocks to a more natural state by sleeping when it was dark and having a more regular sleep cycle. To be fair however this can more or less be replicated at home by going to bed and waking up at regular times that more or less follow the sunlight. Additionally though the study’s author does keep his regular sleep cycle by going to bed at the same time and waking up for a morning hike.
Sources: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00764-1 http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-you-need-go-outside-health-benefits-outdoors-410799
So far for children there have been many studies that have shown that kids who spend more times outdoors doing activities are less likely to develop myopia or near-sightedness. They additionally concluded that activity itself was not the key as students who played indoor sports did not show the same decreased risk of developing myopia.
Sources: Ophthalmology, 2008; Ophthalmology, 2012; Ophthalmology, 2013 http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4
Improved Immune System
More research on the specifics of this topic is needed but the general idea is that the cellular or microscopic activity in a forest promotes your body to produce proteins that can help boost your immune system to fight off minor colds, flus, and infections.
My personal thoughts on this are based off my own experience and my mothers. Growing up we played in the dirt, swam in the creek, and ate things from nature that we probably should have washed but didn’t. I believe it was this exposure to a lot of minor colds and flu bugs that allowed us to strengthen our immune system growing up. I now work with kids and I hardly ever get sick some of you other teachers may relate where the first year at your school you were always sick but the years after that you built up your immune system and now you hardly get sick. I have no statistical proof for this though it is just my opinion and not a recommendation to go expose your kid to colds or the flu, but another example of some more benefits that comes with taking kids outdoors.
Source: Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, 2010 http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4
There is also growing evidence that supports the mental health benefits of being out in nature that may confirm your own personal experience of feeling mentally clear and emotionally better after spending time in nature.
Lower Stress Levels
Different studies have found that going outside or even having nature out a window is linked to lower levels of cortisol a hormone that is often measured when studying stress. Cortisol is a hormone your body produces to help you respond better to stress and or danger a good way of describing it is that you feel on edge, makes you more alert, tension in your back and leg muscles, and feeling ready to fight or run. Cortisol does many other things that help with the natural functions of your body in our case we are focusing on when your body produces too much cortisol due to stress and the benefits of lowering it through nature are many. They include things like improved mood, reduced hypertension, and decreased risk for anxiety and other mental illnesses.
Sources: Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research, 2007; Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, 2010; Japanese Journal of Hygiene, 2011; Biomedical and Environmental Sciences, 2012 http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4 https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?_r=0
Decreased Risk & Improvements in Anxiety, Depression, and other Mental Health Issues
Let’s just get this clear right away this is NOT a recommendation to substitute being in nature for all other treatments relating to mental health. Mental Health is serious and you should always go to a doctor and take prescribed treatment seriously. I love all you wonderful humans out there and if you are struggling with your mental health please take it seriously and seek help for it like you would a bleeding wound or broken ribs because it could be just a fatal.
Now what studies have shown is that being in nature and especially exercising in nature can be great additional treatments to add on to other prescribed treatments from your health providers. This is because it can both reduce stress and promote hormones like endorphin. Studies found that things like walks in woods decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, worked as an additional treatment for major depressive disorders, and that people with a mental illness had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements from doing so. Lastly something I really appreciate being from the Land of 10,000 Lakes is that the presence of water even furthered some of the positive mental health effects of being outdoors.
Sources: Environmental Science and Technology, 2010; Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012; Journal of Affective Disorders, 2013 http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4 https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?_r=0 http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-you-need-go-outside-health-benefits-outdoors-410799
Mental Resilience & Cognition
Different studies have shown that “restorative environments” i.e. the outdoors can help with mental fatigue. You probably have seen this before it is the end of the school day and half of your students eyes are glassing over because all they can think about is that the day is almost done. So it might not be a bad idea to end the class day by having them grab their stuff and taking them outside for their last hour or half hour of learning for the day. Additionally if going outside isn’t an option one study found that even showing a picture of nature can help restore some mental energy and focus.
Sources: Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995; Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2005; Psychological Science, 2012 http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4
Increased Memory, Concentration, & ADHD Benefits
In one of the studies students from the University of Michigan did a memory test and then did a brief walk in the city or the arboretum and came back and took a similar memory test. The students who walked in the arboretum improved by almost 20 percent while the students who walked in the city showed no statistically significant improvements
Additionally studies have shown when people were tested for focus in an ever increasingly distracting environment that the participants who had walked in a natural area before the test were able to focus better. As a result they scored better on the proofreading test than those who had walked in a city.
Lastly some of the most exciting research for anyone who works with students has been on that of ADHD and ADD. This research has found that even after 20 minutes in a park that kids with ADHD have been able to focus and manage their symptoms better. “‘Doses of nature’ might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool … for managing ADHD symptoms,” researchers wrote. This great news and could be a huge break through when it comes to helping kids learn better!
Sources: Environment & Behavior, 1991; Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995 (2); Journal of Attention Disorders, 2008, Psychological Science, 2008; Journal of Affective Disorders, 2013 http://www.businessinsider.com/scientific-benefits-of-nature-outdoors-2016-4 https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?_r=0
I hope you found this information useful and it gives you all the more reasons to get yourself and kids outdoors! I hope you have a great rest of your week, Be Safe, Learn Lots, & Have Fun!
Check out my Youtube Video to hear more about the benefits of teaching outdoors!
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