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Even before I started to work in the outdoor industry, I loved being outside. I have many happy memories of doing my school studying outside whenever I could, even on cold days. Summer holidays were spent outside as much as possible, not necessarily doing anything specific; just being in the fresh air.
Maybe that all came from growing up in a city and feeling confined and constrained by the greyness, I don’t know. Whatever the reason for it, the desire has stayed with me and I seek to be outdoors at any opportunity.
Since my childhood, I have looked a little more at why we should spend time outdoors and some of the benefits that it brings. Some of these have been well-researched and documented; others are merely anecdotal but seem to apply to a wide cross-section of people I have worked with.
Of the benefits, they can be split into those that are mental and those which are more physical in nature which is where I shall start. These are things where changes for good can be noticed in our bodies, be they sick or healthy.
One of the well-documented benefits of being outdoors is the rise in the level of Vitamin D it provides. Sunlight hitting the skin starts the process that generates the vitamin in us. There are studies that suggest this vitamin might have protective effects against many things from heart attacks and strokes to cancer or depression. This is a big debate in Scotland at the moment, with people suggesting that supplements should be taken by the nation to counter the ill effects of so many grey days. However, it seems that you don’t need to be outside a huge amount to top yourself up to a reasonable level – being outside for 15 minutes a day may be sufficient and if you take advantage of every sunny day you should be fine.
Obviously there is the downside of burning so we are told to religiously apply sunscreen which then prevents the vitamin-generating UVB light hitting us. However, with some common sense and a bit of balance it should be possible to avoid over-exposure but allow enough sun through to keep you healthy, if you go outdoors enough.
If you are outside then by definition you are not driving in your car or sitting on your sofa. This suggests that you may be walking somewhere or taking part in some form of more deliberate exercise. Assuming this is at an appropriate level for your general level of fitness, this is a good thing which provides benefits. Again, it doesn’t need to be in huge amounts. There are guidelines as to what you should be doing and it will be best if you can follow them. However, if you don’t normally do any exercise then I’m reasonably sure that graduating to doing ‘some’ is a great step forwards.
I know we can still go to a gym and exercise and there is no harm in that. However, my view is that the ever changing scenery outdoors is better than a TV on your running machine and the other obvious benefit is that the outdoors is free.
It seems from a study carried out in Pittsburgh that having access to natural light is beneficial to patients recovering from spinal surgery. Other studies have shown the benefits of patients being able to see trees and countryside rather than simply brick walls. I know when I was incarcerated in hospital recently, just for a few days, the fact that I could look out the window at something other than buildings was great. Now, this is not specifically about being outside but surely the advantages of seeing these things can be multiplied by actually going out there too, maybe even touching nature. It is no surprise to me that for years long term patients have been wheeled outside into hospital grounds and gardens as part of their convalescence.
Particularly important for children, the outdoors provides more space. How many times have you noticed a child who is itching to run around but is too constrained indoors? Remove the shackles and they are off, whether that is hurtling around a small hall in the building, getting under people’s feet and falling into table corners or playing aeroplanes, football or simply running outside. Children are so much more active outdoors and I suspect that is largely because there are fewer boundaries to slow them down and make them conform. They need to be allowed out to let off steam – just ask a primary school teacher on the third wet day in a row!
Finally in the physical section, I am a firm believer in the idea that living all of our days in our hermetically-sealed, double-glazed, centrally-heated or air-conditioned boxes (at work or at home) is not overly healthy. I know just by watching myself that fresh air helps me sleep better and gives me fewer problems with the condition of my skin. Maybe that is true for other people too, that they simply need to breathe fresh air sometimes. Yes, cold draughty houses are not good either but I suspect there is some middle ground to be found, which may come from frequent visits to the big, fresh-smelling, outdoor world.
There is another body of work that looks at what impact being outside has on our mental wellbeing. Whilst there are few conclusive studies, it seems that a number of pieces of research are quite convinced that there are psychological benefits to be gained by going outside. On top of all this scholarly research, I am currently able to speak from personal experience as well. Stuck inside with a ruptured achilles tendon, even a short ten minute walk down the street makes me feel better inside. In this case it particularly alleviates my feelings of entrapment and monotony. These and other ideas are elaborated on below.
Light makes you feel better and generally there is more of it outside than in, even on days that you would not class as ‘bright’. If you are not sure, just look at the number of people suffering in the winter due to the seasonal lack of light. Whilst your job may enslave you to a routine indoors that means arriving and leaving in the hours of darkness, a five minute walk at lunchtime might overcome the issue enough to make you feel better.
The natural green colours you find in the countryside tend to exhibit a much more calming effect on your brain than the blacks and greys of city life. Even in the confines of an inner-city park, the greenery there is more appealing to the eye. You may not live in close proximity to green open spaces (which is a shame given the apparent benefits of that) but when you want to hopefully you can find them and make the most of them – even a dandelion growing in some cracked mortar is a start.
It also seems to be a generally held view that one of the most calming sounds you can hear is moving water. Whether that is a stream or a wave or a waterfall, the sounds make us feel better somehow, in a way that a dripping tap just can’t. You don’t need to go and camp on the beach or climb up to a mountain stream – even the brook running through the village green or the fountains in the park can give the same effect.
Sometimes I think you can feel trapped by being inside all the time. Particularly at work where you can already feel like you are simply part of a system with no escape, having to sit in the same seat day after day just provides a monotonous outlook on the world. By going outside, the vista opens up, even just looking down a city street. Add the advantages that are provided by stepping even a few metres above the crowd and the sense of being shut-in can lift, however temporarily.
They say variety is the spice of life and that a change is as good as a rest. In that case moving, however briefly, from an indoor existence to a period out of doors must be of benefit. If we can go somewhere new into the bargain then it will be even better. It doesn’t need to be exotic, however hard the travel agents try to convince you to the contrary. Walking down a different street in your own town may be sufficient. Going to a different park or a new footpath will provide even more benefits.
It seems that people, and particularly children, suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can benefit from being outside. If they can counter their ‘nature deficit’ by going outside (as described by Richard Louv in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’) then their concentration improves. The research on this is primarily on these children but it’s not wild conjecture to suggest that the same may be true for all of us. When I worked in a Darlington office complex, I used to take ten minutes at lunchtime just to walk around the block every day. It did wonders for my ability to concentrate in the afternoon. With flexitime in place, I was even at liberty to do it again halfway through the afternoon should I require it.
Finally, I believe that there is benefit in being outdoors for the new appreciation it gives us for our area. Taking time to look around you in a natural place, whether it is perceived to be beautiful or not, will allow you the chance to see what is actually there. You don’t need to move far. Simply sitting outside with things growing around you will present a multiplicity of objects to be observed. On top of that, there may be wildlife, such as birds or small mammals, as well as the weather as it impacts on the land or sea. When observed with open eyes, it is hard to be unimpressed and this can only heighten an appreciation for the place you are in. When this is your homeland, it can fill you with a sense of pride by association. Even if you are far away though, it is still possible to gain a sense of wonder and satisfaction – to have the privilege to live in such a diverse world is amazing.
You may think some of this is hard to believe, or that it doesn’t apply to your situation or the geographical area you frequent. However, having spent most of my working life in outdoor contexts, I have seen many of these concepts in action, and helped people develop their thinking whilst outside. I couldn’t put numbers to it but I would hazard a guess that everyone that has come outside with me over the years has benefited in some way from the experience. which begs the question why we don’t go outside more often – it’s obviously good for us!