One of very few positive things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has for many people been a newfound appreciation for the great outdoors.
With so many indoor spaces closed or restricted and the four walls of living rooms and home offices growing all too familiar over the extended lockdown, many folks who had long ventured out only to move from house to car and car to store/restaurant rediscovered the simple pleasures to be found in extended time beyond their front door. And even if that revelation was borne of desperation and/or extreme boredom, they also may just have found the open secret for better physical and mental health.
“When we spend time outdoors, we experience a variety of benefits,” says Ashley Elcock, a therapist and clinical supervisor at Clarity Clinic NWI. “The vitamin D we soak in from getting time in the sunshine has been correlated with an increase in our ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin, as well as increased immune system function to keep us healthy. Spending time outdoors can also allow us to get more exercise and free movement from activities such as running, sports, walking and swimming — and exercise increases levels of feel-good hormones (such as endorphins) while decreasing stress hormones and keeping our bodies healthy. No wonder so many songs are created about summertime bliss!”
Indeed, even someone who makes her living helping people exercise and train indoors can appreciate the many benefits to be found outside of the gym.
“Nature itself is known to reduce stress and blood pressure, in addition to helping people feel revitalized — especially when the sun is shining,” says Tabitha Stills, a fitness center manager at the Purdue Northwest's Hammond Campus. “When you throw physical activity into the mix, now the body is releasing certain chemicals/hormones that are known to improve overall well-being by reducing things like depression, anger and anxiety.”
Elcock and Stills note that the amount of time one should spend outdoors can vary greatly from individual to individual, with those sensitive to the sun or prone to allergies are better off limiting their outside time, with the understanding that even 15 to 30 minutes among the elements can provide the desired benefits. That said, Elcock echoes decades of sound maternal advice when it comes to young people — “go outside, it’s good for you!”
“I’d recommend more time outdoors for children in the summertime,” she says. “Healthy amounts of vitamin D and exercise are essential for growth, well-being and brain development in young ones and teens.”
For young and old alike, just being outside can deliver a number of the benefits noted above, such as increased vitamin D absorption and mood enhancement.
But to truly harness the healthy potential of the outdoors, Elcock and Stills agree it’s best to engage in some sort of physical activity. For some hearty individuals, this may mean a 30-mile bike ride or a 10-mile run, while for others, a simple walk around the block, a short yoga session or even an hour tending the garden can get the job done. Whatever the activity, it should be something that feels good physically and mentally, and ultimately achieves the most important goal — to allow Mother Nature to do her important work.
“While sunshine alone may increase those feel-good hormones and help with seasonal depression and anxiety, if you want to reap all of the benefits of the outdoors, I’d definitely recommend incorporating some type of exercise or movement as well,” Elcock says. “Just make sure you’re enjoying whatever activity you choose and soak up that sunshine happiness.”