The Benefits of Time Spent in Nature
We are fortunate to live in a part of the country where opportunities to interact with our natural world abound; and yet, busy schedules can make it difficult to find time for the outdoors. As you consider all of the many demands of modern life, I would like to take a moment to advocate for time spent outside.
The time we spend outside provides numerous interconnected benefits. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of time spent is nature is how it improves our health. Outdoor time is associated with higher motivation to exercise, getting plenty of fresh air, and sunshine, all of which improve sleep. The benefits have been found to go beyond helping us prevent illness to helping with pain reduction and healing.
The mental health benefits experienced by those who spend time outside are well documented, as well. Time in the quiet of nature seems to recalibrate our senses. We come to focus on small, quiet things, rather than the loud and disruptive forces of technology we are so accustomed to. For many, this relates to stress relief, better focus, and improved mood.
Just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you’re alone. Nature lovers often find one another outside and build relationships that can contribute to a rich social life, which further improves health and wellbeing.
Nature benefits both kids and adults. Parents often observe that their kids are happier, better behaved, and more connected after playing freely outside. Researchers have established the same connections. They found that direct contacts with nature strengthened development in children, including in the areas of self-esteem, creativity, cognitive and affective abilities, and moral development. Scores for anxiety, behavioral conduct disorders, and depression were lower for kids who spent more time outside, and kids who spent more time in nature rated their self-worth higher than children who spent less time.
There’s no one right way to get outside. The benefits of being outside are available to people whether they are being active or still, whether they spend a lot of time at once or get outside in several smaller increments, and whether they are deep in a forest or in a small public park. A strenuous hike, gardening, stargazing, reading outside, or enjoying a picnic, all have the potential to help us feel healthier. There are so many fun and interesting ways to get outside, and they all work to help us improve our wellbeing.
Expect more official recommendations and health-focused opportunities. As the evidence builds, medical and mental health professionals are building programs around making nature more accessible, like forest bathing, ecotherapy, and prescriptions for parks. After a study of more than 19,000 people in the United Kingdom found that those who spent at least 2 hours a week outside reported better health and wellbeing, many speculate that the United States may make moves toward recommending time outside as a part of official physical activity guidelines.
So when can you find a little extra time to spend outdoors? It could be stepping outside for a moment while your coffee brews or planning a weekend camping trip. Whatever you choose, you are certain to experience the benefits.
Kim Fodor, MD, is an internal medicine physician at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s Internal Medicine practice in Bennington.