Spring is nearly with us and many of us will be looking forward to spending more time outdoors in the coming months. We usually spend much less time outside over the winter so at this time of year we can look forward to the possibility of more hours in the fresh air and sunshine. Being outdoors can really lift our mood and make us feel better. Research shows us there are many tangible health benefits to be gained from spending time in the fresh air.
How does being outdoors affect health and well-being?
Plenty of evidence shows us that spending time in the natural environment – such as parks, woodlands, or beaches, is linked to better health and well-being. Living closer to greener spaces in towns and cities improves mental well-being and seems to reduce the risk of many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and asthma severity 1. Other benefits of spending more time outdoors, include:
Reduced stress and anxiety – evidence shows that living close to green space helps reduce stress.2. Being able to see, visit and particularly spend time in gardens, parks, or allotments seems to lower stress levels and decrease anxiety.3.
Blood pressure - studies show that living near to green spaces reduces blood pressure and lowers the risk of hypertension 4.
Better sleep - people with access to a natural environment sleep better than those who live further away 5. Exposure to natural light in the morning is thought to help us to sleep better at night as it wakes us up more fully than indoor lighting. This helps the release of melatonin in the evening, a hormone that helps us to sleep at night 6.
How sunshine helps!
Being out in the sunshine has additional benefits for health. The healing properties of the sun have been recognised since ancient times, and as recently as 1950’s, Heliotherapy, or sun treatment was used to treat TB. Sunshine is beneficial to health in many ways 9 :
Vitamin D – vitamin D produced from UVA rays on the skin helps our bones to stay strong, it helps us to maintain optimal calcium levels, it supports a healthy immune system, reduces inflammation and improves glucose metabolism.
Nitric Oxide – UVA rays on the skin enable the release of nitric oxide, which stimulates vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) and lowers blood pressure.
Other diseases – increased sun exposure may protect us against many diseases including Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and several forms of cancer.
Well-being – UVB rays on the skin lead to the releases of beta-endorphins which increase feelings of well-being, boosts immune health, improves wound healing, reduces pain, increases relaxation, and improves sleep.
Being in the forest or in woods has particular benefits for our health. Forest bathing is based on the Japanese practice, shinrin-yoku, which can be translated as “taking in the medicine or atmosphere of the forest.” Forest bathing began in Japan in the 1980s and has since grown more popular worldwide.
Forest bathing involves mindfulness – in the forest our senses are heightened so we can suspend judgment and focus on the ‘here and now’. A recent review of six studies about forest therapy found a positive link between nature, mindfulness, and measures of psychological wellbeing 10.
Forest bathing may also be helpful for pain. In one study 61 people with chronic widespread pain were assigned to two groups, one of which was assigned to a two-day forest bathing programme. Those who undertook forest bathing were found to have physiological benefit, improvements to immune health and the participants reported significant decreases in pain, depression, and an improvement in quality of life 11.
It is thought that forest bathing may also have benefits for our immune system. Plants and trees emit a substance called phytoncide, which has antibacterial and antifungal qualities to help plants fight disease. When we breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells and our immune health is strengthened 12.
How much time should we spend outdoors?
Spending any amount of time outdoors is likely to be good for us, however, one study suggested that spending at least two hours in a natural environment each week may be particularly valuable for both health and well-being. The study 13. which involved 20,000 people, found that those who spent more time outside reported higher levels of well-being than those spending less time, with benefits increasing up to a maximum of five hours. The study authors concluded that it was the amount of time spent outdoors which mattered more than the activities undertaken when people were outdoors.
However, the link between time spend outdoors and health may reflect the fact that those people who are healthier may be more able to spend time outdoors and those with illness or disability. But it is likely that time outdoors is beneficial for those who are unwell as well as those who are healthier. Another study 14. assessed the impact of spending time in a natural environment on women with breast cancer. Following the stress of their diagnosis and treatment, those who spent time in a natural environment had greater improvements in well-being than others.
Spending time outdoors in the fresh air is good for health and wellbeing and sunshine brings additional benefits. Being outside helps us to relax and being immersed in nature is especially good for our well-being.