If you’re anything like me there’s times when the outdoors is calling you. You just need to get outside.
People like us get labelled as ‘outdoors people’, but is that really the case? Is the urge to be outside limited to just a sub-set of society, or is the need to be outside actually in our genes?
What type of animal are we?
Ever had to look after animals? Even very domesticated pets, there’s things you have to get right.
Take fish for example. You have to make sure their environment is correct: the water chemistry is within the ranges found in the wild, the water temperature is correct, if they like certain rocks or plants (or if there are ones that are toxic to them), and the food is also correct for them. Even if you get man-made substitutes, you still have to make sure they correctly represent what is found in the wild.
You also have to make sure you don’t overfeed them. Food can be scarce in the wild and their bodies don’t do well with too much food.
Even dogs, which have been domesticated with humans for a very long time, have their roots in the wild.
Yet, don’t give them enough exercise, they become unfit as well as turning their energy to less desirable behaviour.
So what about us humans?
We’re learning that our processed foods, and too much food, is bad for our health, just like it is with other animals. But what about all the other things us ‘human animal’ would have in the wild?
I don’t think the need to be outside is limited to just a few people. I think it’s in all our genes.
May be the ‘outdoors folk’ are just a bit more in tune with what their body’s natural needs?
Benefits of Being Outside
There are a number of benefits to being outside that backs up the evidence that as humans, we need to get outside once in a while.
Just like the pets we keep, we are still connected to the environment of our ancestors.
Benefit 1: Sights
As any of us ‘outdoors folk’ will testify, there are views that will take your breath away.
And even if you don’t head for the hills to take in a panorama from high, just a big expanse of sky can be equally breath-taking.
Often these sights have a restorative effect. Everyday worries for that moment disappear, and you can both feel wonder, appreciation, and a connectedness to the world around.
Benefit 2: Sounds
It’s a long held understanding that the sound of bird song or a trickling stream is ‘relaxing’.
Why is that? Is it a calling back to the wild from our ancestral DNA?
Benefit 3: Smells
Certain smells of the outdoors also have a similar restorative effect.
The smell after rain, a sea breeze, the smell of the forest: all help bring us back to nature.
These aspects are now being studied by scientists at universities into a field called Environmental Psychology, but the benefits of being outside don’t stop there…
Benefit 4: Fresh Air
In some of our towns and cities pollution is thankfully reducing, but that can’t be said of everywhere on the planet.
Pollution has been linked to a lot of illness, and I know from myself that it can bring on Asthma.
Here’s a worrying example of how pollution impacts society: a study linked lead pollution with crime and violence.
They found that where lead-free fuel had been introduced, after around 20 years there was a correlating drop in crime and violence.
Why the 20-year wait? Because that’s how long it took for the children that then grew up in the lead-free environment to have an influence on the statistics.
Lead is known to impact brain development, and the figures hint that the lead-pollution had altered children’s brains to make them more predisposed to crime and violence.
If pollution can have such a bad impact on people (let alone the environment), what’s the future hold for the planet where some of the biggest cities in the world have some of the biggest pollution problems?
Most of us feel better when it’s a nice sunny day.
Yes, there is risk of skin-cancer from the sun (especially if you deliberately overexpose yourself to the strongest sun-rays), but avoiding sunlight is also bad for us.
Sunlight helps our bodies make Vitamin-D. A lack of Vitamin D (known as Vitamin D deficiency) has been shown to:
- Increase death risk from cardiovascular disease
- Increase risk of cognitive impairment in older adults
- Increase risk of asthma in children
- Increase risk of cancer (yes, avoiding sun-light could also increase risk of cancer)
Vitamin-D may also help prevent or treat:
- Glucose intolerance and both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Multiple Sclerosis
It is also expected to have a big impact on mental health (remember how you feel better on a sunny day?).
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, also known as the ‘winter blues’, can be very serious, where a lack of sunlight can bring on major depression, causing suicide rates to increase in many countries.
Occurring during the reduced sun-light hours of Winter, this is also when there is a drop of Vitamin D in our bodies.
Whilst the direct impact of vitamin-D, sunlight, and other winter factors has yet to be fully understood, many Northern countries encourage the use of Vitamin D supplements during the Winter months.
Update: A few days after posting this, TED released the video below about a study that indicates sunlight on the skin can reduce the risk of heart disease. This is completely independent from Vitamin D – or in other words, sunlight itself has other benefits that Vitamin D supplements cannot replicate.
Benefit 6: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is generally about living in the moment, and is effective in blocking out worries or stresses.
Whilst this sounds very ‘zen’, the technique is becoming a mainstream method for dealing with stress.
That stunning view I mentioned earlier can often snap us out of our day-to-day worries and into that moment.
Just taking you out of those day-to-day worries in your head can put things into perspective, and little things that had been grinding away at you no longer appear to matter as much.
Many outdoor pursuits also involve a lot of concentration in the moment. For example, a down hill mountain bike run requires a lot of thinking to avoid obstacles and pick out the best route ahead in very fast time – no time to think about work or what so-and-so said.
Similarly shooting the rapids in your kayak. You need to constantly adjust your course, read the river, and avoid certain stoppers and eddies.
Benefit 7: Exercise
I left this one until last. I suspect exercise may have been the first benefit that came to mind, but hopefully I’ve shown that there are a great many other benefits of being outside without having to do exercise.
It is true, that just getting outside involves getting off the couch or away from the computer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean strenuous exercise. Just a simple stroll is good for you.
Studies have also shown how even gentle exercise can reduce stress, so this is good for both mind and body.
30 minutes of ‘light’ exercise a day could reduce risk of death from a number of diseases by around 50%
I’m going to leave you with this excellent video from Dr. Mike Evans, who explains that how just 30 minutes of ‘light’ exercise a day (and note: 1 hour a day for children, and under 5s should be active for 3 hours a day) could reduce risk of death from a number of diseases by around 50%.
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