by Jennifer Novakovich
As many of you know, I have been living in a tent for the past six months, climbing full time and enjoying the great outdoors. Something I have noticed in myself and other outdoor dwellers is the sense of enjoyment, healthfulness, and happiness that we exude daily. I have never felt more vibrant, alive and strong as I do now, living on approximately $5 per day in a way that most would associate with poverty. Now I know what I’m doing is a bit extreme (not that I don’t think more people should be doing it) for the average person, but is there something to be said for the benefits of immersing oneself in nature in terms of overall well-being? With approximately 80% of us living in urban areas, and the reported 36% of us living sedentary indoor lifestyles, would recommendations for more time spent outside be appropriate to support a healthier overall population?
The term “nature-deficit disorder,” coined by Richard Louv, has been used to describe the lack of time outdoors, which has been replaced by demanding schedules and electronic media. This disorder is associated with obesity, asthma, ADHD, and vitamin D deficiency, all of which are risk factors for many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and mental health problems. Today, 21% of our youth play video games or browse the internet for at least three hours daily, and the average child spends another three hours in front of the TV daily. These numbers put us at greater risks for obesity, emotional and social problems (e.g. poor self-esteem), and reduced overall health.
With the increase in resource and time allocations to reading and math, programs such as gym, art, and recess have suffered serious reductions, and children have now lost about 12 hours per week of free time (including a 50% reduction in unstructured outdoor activities). While many may come to a conclusion that these changes are for the best, free unstructured outdoor play is an important part of childhood that allows children to develop creativity, strength, dexterity, conflict resolution, self-advocacy, and group work skills. In adults, chronic diseases and mental health problems are on the rise, coinciding with the reductions in outdoor activities and increases in go-go work schedules. As a population, social media is increasingly present and the average person now has a strong disconnect with nature. Could reconnecting ourselves with nature be an appropriate way to negate the outcomes associated with the “nature-deficit disorder”?
With all of that said, here are four reasons to spend more time outdoors! (Don’t worry; tent-life is not required (but definitely recommended).)
1) Being outside more promotes higher activity levels!
Sedentary lifestyles are major risk factors for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental, and physical disability and are thought to be accountable for 1.9 million deaths annually worldwide. The health impact of inactivity in terms of heart disease is comparable to the impacts from smoking. Regular physical activity helps build and maintain healthy bones and muscles, reduces the risk of obesity and chronic diseases, reduces feelings of depression and anxiety, and promotes feelings of well-being. More time spent outdoors is associated with higher physical activity. For example, a study using children ages 10–12 demonstrated a 27 minute increase in weekly exercise and reduction of overweight prevalence from 41% to 27% with each additional hour spent outdoors. Proximity to outdoor recreation has also been demonstrated to influence childhood activity and weight, and children who live within a kilometer of a park with a playground were demonstrated to be five times more likely to be at a healthier weight than kids without accessible playgrounds. Motivating people to spend more time outdoors is an excellent tool to get people more active.
2) Being outside promotes mental wellbeing!
Being outside is widely known to have positive effects on one’s mental wellbeing, and experimental data has demonstrated a reduction of stress and mental fatigue with more time outside. Exercising in an outdoors environment has been linked with improvements in social networking, self-esteem, and feelings of connectivity. Our youth are increasingly being prescribed medication for mental health, with about 6% of teenager diagnosed with depression and 3% of kids younger than fourteen. Fourteen percent of adolescents categorized their stress as extreme and about half in the U.S. said their stress had increased over the past year. ADHD has also increased over recent decades, with around 9% of children diagnosed. About 9% of children (ages 4–17) were prescribed medication for difficulties with behavior and emotions and about 90% of these were treatment for ADHD symptoms. Natural environments have been demonstrated to improve attention (especially in those diagnosed with ADHD), reduce the impacts of stress, and reduce mental fatigue characterized by irritability, feeling distracted, and difficulty focusing.
3) Being outdoors reduces risks for vitamin D deficiencies!
There were 7.6 million U.S. children demonstrated to be vitamin D deficient and about 50.8 million had insufficient levels of vitamin D. In a recent study in a Boston hospital, about 42% of the adolescent patients examined had a deficiency and an estimated 1 billion people world-wide aren’t getting enough. In states of vitamin D deficiency, only about 10% of dietary calcium and 50% of dietary phosphorus are absorbed, leading to conditions such as rickets and osteoporosis, weakened immune systems, and a higher risk for seizures. Low vitamin D is also a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Luckily, adequate vitamin D can be achieved by time spent outside with exposed skin. In the summer, a time of 6–8 minutes may be enough, while in the winter, times increase to 7–50 minutes or so depending on the latitude.
4) Being outdoors promotes overall health improvements!
Outdoor activity in nature may also benefit one’s health by improving asthma, myopia, and chronic pain issues. For example, surrounding tree density was correlated with a lower incidence of childhood asthma. Myopia, or nearsightedness, has substantially risen over the past few decades and affects roughly 9.2% of American children. These numbers may be heightened by the increase in illuminated screen viewing and reading time. A higher level of time outdoors was associated with less myopia. In a 1984 study, patients with a view of deciduous trees took fewer doses of strong pain medication than a group viewing a brown brick wall, had shorter postoperative hospital stays, and fewer postsurgical complications. These health benefits are only the start, making more time in nature a valuable part of your routine.
Bowler et al. (2010) A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural Environments. BMC Public Health, 10:456.
Coon et al. (2011) Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45:1761–1772.
McCurdy et al. (2010) Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children’s Health. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care 5:102-117.
Photos taken by Andreas Krappweis