The mental benefits of being outdoors
Ever noticed how your mood and energy levels automatically improve when you’re surrounded by the great outdoors? “Our psychological health is affected by our environment because, as a species, we’ve evolved in a natural environment,” explains psychologist Dr Jeremy Adams. “Seeing that urban living is merely a couple of hundred years old, we have spent nearly all of our evolution in non-urban environments. As such, we feel most comfortable when we’re in natural surroundings,” he adds.
Numerous studies have been undertaken to explore the impact nature has on our mood and mental wellbeing. Deakin University experts found nature can reduce stress levels and improve the way people cope with stressful situations. They also report that being in touch with nature can enhance the overall quality of life and reduce negative feelings including anger, fear, anxiety and frustration. Plus, nature creates peace of mind, encourages a state of reflection and helps put things in perspective. Dr Adams believes this is because nature is soothing. “Seeing it or being surrounded by it instantly allows to you to breathe well, and feel better and calmer,” he says.
The physical benefits
Spending a regular amount of time outdoors does wonders for your physical health, too. Research proves that ‘green spaces’ can help to protect against everything from strokes and heart disease, to diabetes and even cancer, by slashing stress levels, promoting physical activity and improving how the immune system functions. You don’t need to spend hours a day outside either: according to Australian researchers, visiting a tree-filled park for just 30 minutes a week is linked to a lower risk of high blood pressure. In fact, even if you can’t get outside, you can still benefit from the great outdoors: just looking at nature, either out the window or on a screen saver, makes brain regions that control focus and attention, more active.
Plus, there’s the body’s need for vitamin D, which has been shown to play a role in a wide variety of diseases, including diabetes, dementia and osteoporosis, when levels fall below ‘adequate’. As many as one in three Australians are vitamin D deficient all year round, but by the time spring arrives more than 50 per cent of women’s vitamin D levels are too low, thanks to a lack of sun exposure during winter. To top your levels up, pay attention to the UV Index. When it’s 3 or above, use a combination of sun-protection measures whenever you’re outside for more than a few minutes. When it’s below 3, sun protection isn’t required. In seasons like spring, where the UV Index is 3 or above during the middle of the day, just a few minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun exposure to the arms and hands on most days of the week, is enough to maintain adequate vitamin D levels for most people.
Five fab outdoor workouts
1. Horse riding: Enjoy the view from above as you strengthen core and back muscles
2. Stand-up paddleboarding: A mix between kayaking and surfing that’s brilliant for your core strength and upper body muscles.
3. Mountain biking: Cycling is great for cardio fitness, and many national parks and state forests have designated mountain bike trails you can make frequent use of.
4. Yoga: Yoga is good for flexibility, but if you practise it outdoors, you’ll receive the added bonus of breathing in all that fresh air. You’ll also feel more in touch with your natural surroundings, giving you the added benefit of feeling calm and centred.
5. Ocean Swimming: Ditch the monotony of swimming laps at the local indoor pool and jump in the ocean for the same benefits, but better scenery! Salt water has proven health benefits for your skin and the intermittent waves give you an added workout.
Paint your life green
The following simple strategies will help you get a daily dose of nature – even if you live in a shoebox apartment in the city or are working indoors seven days a week.
Get yourself a pot plant!” insists Professor Margaret Burchett, a plant scientist at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her experience in the field has demonstrated that not only do plants – big and small – in office environments help clean the air, but they can also improve employee productivity, reduce sick leave, increase job satisfaction and boost the overall atmosphere. “Just having one plant in your office can make a difference when it comes to lifting the spirits,” she says. Already have a pot plant by your desk? Go even greener with these additional ideas from Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, head of academic studies at Sydney’s Australasian College of Natural Therapies:
- Get up and outside during your lunch break
- Upload a photo of scenic nature onto your desktop
- Keep a goldfish on your desk. These small creatures radiate peace and their bright, flickering colours can be stimulating
To get your nature fix at home – and improve your health and shopping bill at the same – have a go at planting a vegetable garden. “Planting and tending a colourful, vegetable garden encourages you to spend time outdoors and stay in touch with nature,” notes Mitchell-Paterson. Gardening is a great way to get you moving. Further ways to keep it green at home include:
- Buying fresh cut flowers or having a few pot plants in the house. Prof Burchett believes pot plants have the same wellbeing benefits at home as they do in the office
- Listening to a CD recording of nature sounds to beat stress
Fresh air playtime
Want to include more nature time into your day? Try these:
- Join a bush-care or gardening group
- Organise a picnic and dine al fresco
- Take up an outdoor hobby such as bird watching or nature photography
- Shop at the local outdoor farmer’s markets
- Treat yourself to a hammock and read the newspaper or your favourite magazines and books outside