Shoulder season is almost always unpredictable for outdoor lovers. Throw a public health crisis into the mix, and what are you left with? A bunch of hikers, bikers, climbers, and trail runners clawing the walls, clicking through virtual tours of National Parks, and making dream boards with their old Patagonia catalogs.
If that’s you, good on you for doing your part to flatten the curve. But you’ll be relieved to know that unless you’re actually sick, you can still get outside, even if your area is operating under strict shelter-in-place guidelines. Most of these mandates allow for people to spend time outdoors, as long as they’re not gathering in groups and aren’t infringing on the space of others. You should still practice social distancing by staying six feet away from others at all times.
These allowances have been made in recognition of the role outdoor time plays in our immune system and overall health. Over the past several years, scientists and health professionals have been waking up to the powerful connection between spending time in nature and a high-functioning human organism. On the physical side, doctors are actually writing prescriptions for time outside for patients suffering from issues like hypertension and diabetes. Meanwhile, in the field of mental health, the body of research around the benefits of nature time is growing so quickly, it’s starting to be known as ecopsychology.
And with all the added pressure we’re operating under — decreased mobility, less social connection, adjusting to new working conditions, anxieties about the future — the health benefits of going outside are more critical than ever. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the biggest issue on everyone’s mind right now: the immune system.
“The best thing about spending time outside is that it allows you to kill multiple birds with a single stone,” says Dr. Josh Turknett, president of Physicians for Ancestral Health. “Because the body is one big interconnected system, all the benefits you get from being outside, in the sunshine, contribute to a more robust and effective immune system.”
At this point in the year, few of us need any encouragement to get out and soak up the sun. But right now, sunshine is proving to be worth its weight in gold. According to Dr. Dan Pardi, founder of performance platform HumanOS.me, real-time research is revealing that one of the most important factors impacting survival from COVID-19 is vitamin D, created in skin from exposure to ultraviolet B radiation in sunlight.
“Because the body is one big interconnected system, all the benefits you get from being outside, in the sunshine, contribute to a more robust and effective immune system.”
Finally, research has also shown that the sensory input of nature (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) lights up signals in the brain that create a feeling of calm and well-being. This, as the song says, is more than a feeling — it indicates a reduction of stress chemicals and the inflammation they cause. The less inflammation the body has to deal with on a regular basis, the more resources it has to fight unwanted intruders … like, say, a new virus.
Exercise isn’t the only reason to get outside. Spending time outdoors is shown to boost productivity, creativity and focus, all of which are pretty important to helping our economy limp along as best it can. If you’ve been struggling with the transition to working from home, a walk around the block really can clear your mind and help you resist the allure of distractions. If, on the other hand, you feel mentally fatigued, like your brain is in “hibernate” mode, outdoor time can help with that, too. The world needs you to be on your game right now, so get outside and let nature do its work.
Most of us have at least an idea that exercise plays a vital role in keeping us disease-proof. A strong body means a stronger resistance to infection, as well as a greater speed of recovery if you do fall ill. But did you know that you can turn up your workout several notches just by doing it outside? For one thing, adapting your activity to the variabilities in nature (like running up a sudden incline or hucking over a puddle) makes your body work a little harder than if you were running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. For another, the increased flow of oxygen from clean fresh air stimulates your lymphatic system, your digestion, and other vital bodily functions to perform at peak capacity. Finally, there’s the magical “extension” effect — for whatever reason, exercise sessions tend to last longer outside than they do inside. Don’t believe us? Take those Burpees outside and see if it’s easier to get in an extra 10 reps.
In addition, getting exercise outside offers the benefit of cleaner air quality while you’re huffing and puffing. Scientists have also recently noted that breathing in phytoncides — airborne chemicals produced by plants — increases the body’s white blood cell count, improving its ability to fight off infections and diseases. All of these add to the growing body of evidence that indicates that outdoor air serves as a natural disinfectant. “In the flu pandemic of 1918,” says Dr. Turknett, “some patients were nursed in open-air tents, and they found those patients fared better than those who stayed indoors, due to the benefits of fresh air and sunshine.”
Even if you’re kicking ass in the WFH setting and have a flawless quarantine fitness regimen, there’s one other way outdoor time is important for you — in helping maintain your mental health. Possibly the worst part of a national health crisis is the uncertainty it brings. Staying inside makes it far too easy for the lizard brain to chase its tail, fueled by thoughts like, Will I get the virus? Will my loved ones get the virus? Will I lose my job? How will this affect the economy? How will this affect the election? And dear God, how long can this lockdown situation last?
“Being out in the natural world has been repeatedly shown to lessen anxiety and, as a result, lessen the amount of circulating stress hormone.”
Those uncertainties beget a lot of stress, anxiety, and even depression. But even though it might feel like you’ll never be able to relax until you get some answers, the best thing you can do for those feelings is get outside.
“Being out in the natural world has been repeatedly shown to lessen anxiety and, as a result, lessen the amount of circulating stress hormone,” says Dr. Turknett. As of 2016, some researchers are even proposing that time outdoors could be “useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments” for depression.
One intensive study sent stressed-out students on a walk through the forest — they came back with an average of 15% less stress hormone than they started with. Another study sent psychiatric patients out to work in a garden plot for 20 minutes — they reported not only feeling calmer and in a better mood than they’d started, but feeling less isolated and alone than previously. That “less isolation” factor was bolstered by yet another study, which showed that more exposure to nature translated into less crime and more community cooperation.
The bottom line is that nature provides a real-time tutorial of dealing with the unexpected. From roots and puddles in your path to encounters with wildlife and weather to variable terrain, spending time in nature is a gentle reminder that we are built for moving forward in the face of uncertainty and change.
Over the past many decades, humankind has done a pretty shitty job of protecting nature and stewarding its resources. So it’s a bit ironic that right now, more than ever, we need nature to take care of us. Unfiltered sunshine, clean air, and abundant plant life are essential to keeping the human body and mind in balance, helping us maintain both health and hope in the face of adversity. When we take care of nature, we’re really investing in our own longevity as a species. If the challenges of our current crisis push us to start appreciating nature the way it deserves, it might all be worth it.
Dr. Turknett and Dr. Pardi have an upcoming book on optimizing human functionality through practices of ancestral health. Look for it early next year.
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