Are you interested in jump starting your lifestyle to improve your health? There are many health habits to consider – eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and spending time outdoors. Yes, spending time outdoors is an important health habit! This article will describe the health science benefits of outdoor time and provide some practical tips to incorporate it into your lifestyle today.
My earlier Nature Prescription article focused on bringing nature inside your home and office. In that article I described the science of nature contact health benefits and offered tips on how to make your inside spaces healthy. The question became, ‘What type of nature contact elements are the most healthful?’ Recently, I led a study to do just that; we compared various nature contact elements – indoor plants, natural sunlight, view from a window, listening to nature sounds, and taking work breaks outdoors. We found that all of the studied nature contact exposures were healthful, but taking breaks outdoors and eating lunch outdoors were the strongest predictors of health in our study (Largo-Wight et al., 2011). The most “direct” nature contact exposures appear to have the largest health benefits.
Nature Contact Health Benefits:
Lower blood pressure
Quicker recovery from illness
Happier (positive affect)
What You Can Do!
First, get out! While you are outside, take a few minutes to notice the outdoor surroundings with all five senses. Here are some strategies that might work for you:
- Go for walks or runs!
This is a tremendous health habit for the whole family! The adults benefit from both the physical exercise and time outdoors. And the children are exposed to healthful nature contact, critical for wellbeing, health, and development. If this outdoor stroller run/walk becomes a predictable routine, the stroller cues tell the children: it’s time to sit back, relax, and soak in your surroundings. If you have more than one child, they may start to share their observations and enjoy this special sibling bonding time. Ideally, utilize a ‘nature contact’ route such as the local park or a tree-lined sidewalk.
- Gear up!
Regardless of the weather, time outdoors can be healthful if you are prepared and comfortable in dress and gear.*
*Heed air quality, severe weather, and other health and safety warnings.
- Eat alfresco!
It’s a great family bonding experience to plan and eat a meal outside. A towel to sit on and a cold drink and snack may be all you need to have fun ‘eating alfresco’ this summer.
- Take regular booster breaks outside!
Booster breaks are brief breaks designed to boost your health – they are quick and convenient, making it easy to fit them into even the busiest schedule. Take at least one booster break a day, and do it outside. Find or cultivate a peaceful outdoor spot and visit it regularly. During your booster break, notice natural elements around you – the sky, the animals, the natural sounds, the breezes, the colors, the plants, etc.
- Play outside!
Run, play a game, set up a lemonade stand, ride bikes, use your imagination and make-believe, spread a blanket for the baby, etc. – the opportunities for outdoor play are endless! It may work best for you and your family to have a regular “outdoor play time.” The routine and predictability is reassuring and calming for the whole family.
- Know your parks well!
Spend time in your local and community parks and gardens. These areas offer opportunity for nature contact for all and are a tremendous asset for your family. Use them and advocate for them!
Spending time outside is healthy. Both eating lunch on a city park bench and adventure challenges in wilderness have been shown to be healthy. The focus of this article is on ordinary or regular outdoor places.
One study examined approximately 950 individuals and found that the more someone visited a “green space” or park in their home city or town, the less likely she or he would be to report stress and stress-related illness (Grahn and Stigsdotter, 2003). Researchers have also examined the influence of walking in parks versus city streets. The findings suggest that people who walk in more natural surroundings (e.g., city park) have greater reduction in physical stress and better coping than those that walked on the city streets (Hartig et al., 2003). In addition to sitting or walking in city parks, hospital gardens are also an area of scientific study. In one study, the majority of the individuals that visited a hospital garden reported feeling less stressed and more relaxed after visiting the garden (Whitehouse et al., 2001). I recently led a study that compared indoor versus outdoor work breaks among office staff. Office staff that took a daily 10-minute outdoor work break (focusing on “natural” elements around them – the sky, the breeze, the birds, the landscape, etc.) had significantly improved stress and health over the 4-week study than the office staff that took a daily 10-minute break indoors (Largo-Wight et al., in progress).
The science suggests that even brief breaks outdoors can boost our health. There are many ways you can get out and enjoy the outdoors, even if it’s just a short outdoor “booster break”. One important way to jump start your health may be to utilize your local parks and gardens – they are a tremendous health resource for your family. Get outside and walk, run, picnic, relax, or play even just for 10-minutes!
Richard’s Louv book entitled “Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder” (2005) emphasized the importance of outdoor exposure and play for the health and development of children. He coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the divide between children and nature and the subsequent health problems associated with that disconnect. Outdoor time and play has been shown to influence the health and wellbeing, cognitive development, and social development of children in city, suburban, and urban settings. All children benefit from outdoor time and play.
Consider the many ways that you can foster outdoor time and play for your children. You may take your children for a walk or jog in the stroller so they can observe their natural world around them. This is a great health habit for the whole family!
To Learn More
Children and Nature Network. Available: http://www.childrenandnature.org/
Largo-Wight, E., Chen, W., Dodd, V., & Weiler, R. (2011). Healthy workplaces: The role of nature contact office exposures on employee stress and health. Public Health Reports, 126 (3), 1-13. Available: http://www.publichealthreports.org/issueopen.cfm?articleID=2653