Benefits of the outdoors

Man relaxing on mountain
Lucas Foglia

The term “the outdoors” makes me uncomfortable. It distinguishes between the mental spaces of the natural and the artificial environments, and implies the artificial to be the norm. Outdoors is therefore a space to be ventured into for a short time before a return to the sterile predictability of the manufactured environment. While I would rather this not be the case, I have to accept the reality of modern living: we do spend the majority of our time inside – whether at work or at play, and a lot of this time we spend experiencing life through the lenses of our TVs, computers and mobile devices. But contact with the outdoors produces great benefits for us, both physically and mentally.

Benefits of the outdoors

The strange situation has very real consequences for us. It is now recognized that we suffer from a deficit of contact with the natural environment, and are suffering as a result. As a result, even a short time spent in the outdoors produces the following benefits for us.

Physical activity

We are now more sedentary than we have every been as a species, and make no mistake, this is killing us. Sitting and sedentary behavior are linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Getting outdoors almost invariably involves physical activity of one kind or another. If this activity is play, then the health benefits are compounded with the acquisition of new skills and better relationships.

Stress reduction

Even if you are not partaking in exercise as such, time spent outside in nature has been shown to reduce stress. The Japanese have long since recognized the health benefits of shinrin-yoku (森林浴 or “forest bathing”). Researchers at Chiba University quantified nature’s effects on the brain by sending 280 subjects for a stroll in different forests or around city centers. The forest walkers showing a 16% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Even just a 40-minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and robustness. Reduced stress means reduced blood pressure, improved moods, better sleep, and higher energy levels. In short, time spent outdoors is a form of preventative medicine.

Better mental performance

Woman among trees in sunlight
iStock/aleksandarnakic

David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, believes that slowing down and seeking out the natural environment actually improves our mental performance. He has demonstrated as much with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. Strayer hypothesizes that life in modern society places a heavy load on higher-order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking and that exposure to nature works to somehow restore these fatigued functions.

 

Stewardship of the outdoors

While our every action has an environmental impact of some kind, I believe the benefits of our being outdoors are actually symbiotic. We instinctively protect that which has value to us, so the more intimately involved we are with the natural world and the more pleasure we derive from it, the more motivated we will be to protect it. That is, by getting outdoors and playing in nature, we start to make the natural world our own.

In short, the human animal is meant to be outdoors; it is our home. In the same ways that mediation frees us from the artificial constructs of the mind and allows us to experience what really is, when we are in nature, we experience a shedding of artificial stimulation and burdens, which allows us to remember who we really are. So get outdoors and have some fun! You will feel much better for it!

Play. Play more. Play more outdoors.

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  • Naoko Komuro

    That was well said Rowan! I really wish more of those people having busy life style would realise this, and spend time outdoors to get all those benefits. Human animal can not live without the natural environment. I felt human is so tiny when I was surrounded by mountains in Norway last week. (well, tiny but nasty and horrible as we destroy nature so easily.. :(()
    Good work Rowan, you keep telling people to play more outdoors!!

    • Rowan White

      Thank you for the vote of confidence, Naoko!
      I think a lot of society’s problems would be alleviated if we played more outdoors, and I am glad you feel the same. Doing so makes us fitter and happier, and builds stronger relationships between ourselves and others, and with the natural environment. It really is a win-win-win situation, I believe.

      Looking forward to the day when we can play together again!

      • Naoko Komuro

        Yes, we can play together again in Japan, Sweden, or elsewhere!!

  • Deirdre Dawdle

    Rowan, I really liked this post & I agree with your analysis. You have probably seen the shock story this week from the UK that most people over a certain age (I forget ) don’t manage even 10 mins of brisk walking per MONTH! This is quite extraordinary if true. Mind you, it would be necessary to make a serious effort to get away from traffic pollution in some cities to feel the benefits. Many risks to lungs etc on busy streets, even if they are lined with trees..

    There is another serious issue though with extreme outdoors activity-e.g. Everest-and the pollution that is created by ardent mountaineers who don’t clear up after themselves. Also erosion from mountain biking, and freqent foot fall on fragile hill terrain. We need a balance somehow. I think that even looking at landscape can have a calming and BP lowering effect.

    • Rowan White

      Thanks Deirdre; I’m glad you liked it. I have indeed seen the news about extremely low levels of activity among middle-aged people in the UK. The drivers of such an extreme trend must be complex, but the result is confusing to me: To achieve such a sedentary lifestyle, it must take such an enormous devotion to inactivity that it would surely be easier to live a normal lifestyle of moderate activity…

      Yes, my above discussion does assume good air quality. It might not apply to tiny parks in city centers or green reserves in industrial areas – I don’t know. If, however, poor air quality makes it healthier to not play outdoors wherever one may be, I seriously suggest relocating or campaigning hard to clean up the air!

      As you correctly note, responsible stewardship of the outdoor environment is very much an issue. As more people play outdoors, there will necessarily be an increased impact on the immediate environment. Yet without more people playing outdoors, it will be hard to build the political impetus to protect the environment. It is indeed a difficult balance to strike.