Remember when your Mum used to tell you to ‘go outside and play’? That might have seemed like negligent parenting at the time but in fact she was right – and heading outside to kick a ball around was probably very good for you.
Kicking a ball around means exercise and this is obviously very good for kids who want to be more physically active, thinner and healthier. But at the same time, it also meant being outdoors – and that in itself is incredibly good for you.
The Benefits of Being Outdoors
You only have to look at any ‘surfer dude’ or ‘outdoors type’ to instantly see the benefits of being outside more. These people will of course have olive colored skin and sun-bleached hair but it goes beyond that too; they also seem to be more energetic and more enthusiastic. They tend to be lean and they just seem all-round healthy.
So what precisely is nature doing to their bodies? And what could it be doing for you?
In one study, it was found that the closer people lived to nature, the healthier they were likely to be. The report looked at 345,143 participants and assessed their medical records for 24 different conditions including cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases. They found that the incidence of these conditions correlated almost precisely with how much green space was situated within 1-3km of their postcode. Those in more urban environments had a much higher likelihood of developing 15 of the 24 conditions and were at greater risk of depression, obesity and heart problems (1). Many other studies have subsequently and previously (2).
I can also speak from personal experience here. I have recently taken up running outside and have been walking much further during the day/eating my lunch outside. As a result, I’ve noticed myself sleeping much better, feeling more energetic and even noticing a significant increase in drive and testosterone levels.
How Being Outdoors Helps the Body
There are potential confounding variables with studies like these, as well as with anecdotal evidence that ‘outdoorsy types’ are healthier. One obvious explanation is just that those with access to green areas will exercise more.
But the correlation also makes sense based on our understanding of the human body and the role that sunlight and fresh air can have on it.
For instance, sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D. Vitamin D is not like other vitamins but rather acts like a ‘master switch’ for our hormones. It also controls the regulation of calcium and phosphorous absorption making it crucial for healthy teeth and bones. It is important for heart health, aids sleep and boosts the immune system. A large proportion of us have a vitamin D deficiency however, simply due to a lack of sleep.
Natural sunlight itself can also help us to feel better by entering into the brain via the thinner portions of the skull. This is one ‘external zeitgeber’ (‘time giver’) that the body uses to synchronize its biological rhythms to the world around us. In short, it can improve our ability to sleep because our body knows what time it is. Likewise, natural light entering our eyes and brain can help to stimulate the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that make us more awake, more focussed and better able to sleep later that night.
Then there’s the impact that natural scenes can have on our psychological health. Studies show that simply walking in a natural setting can help to significantly reduce stress and encourage creativity. This is likely due to our evolutionary psychology – where we would have thought of greenery as a sign of food, shelter and water. Even putting a plant on your desk in the office has been shown to increase creativity and problem solving abilities by reducing stress levels and lowering the heart rate!
Being outdoors also increases our exposure to fresh air. Pollutants indoors are typically 2-5 times higher versus indoors. Outdoor air also contains more oxygen as the same air isn’t constantly being ‘recycled’.
This means you can get more oxygen with each breath, which fuels the body and cells with more energy. It can improve blood pressure and heart rate, as well as increase levels of the ‘happiness hormone’ serotonin.
When we think of being outdoors for our health, we might think of being in the sun and feeling it on our face. In fact though, being outside in the cold can also be very good for us.
One reason for this is that cold weather increases adrenaline and testosterone – just like cold water does. This is great for waking you up and for improving fertility in men. What’s more, cold weather also challenges the immune system in a similar manner that weight training might challenge your muscles. In other words, by occasionally taxing your immune system by going out in the cold, you can make it more resilient so that it’s better able to fend off attacks under normal conditions. The cold is also good for circulation and heart health.
Put it this way: in the wild, we would have spent all our time outdoors in the cold and the wet and yet we would have survived. Conversely, if we spend even a few minutes outside or getting rained on today, we tend to struggle and get ill. We’ve become soft and as such, slight discomfort is something we struggle with. Being outdoors is a great way to harden ourselves up again!
Running outdoors is also much better for you than running on a treadmill. The same goes for all kinds of exercise.
When it comes to running in particular, treadmills are unfortunately very much inferior. This is because you aren’t actually pushing yourself forward: just moving your feet rapidly enough to remain on the spot while the ground moves underneath you. This means you actually exert a lot less force and energy when running the same distance, while simultaneously using incorrect form.
Moreover, running on the ground means that your feet are constantly having to adapt to different gradients, to protruding roots and to dips in the ground. All this means that your feet, calves, lower legs and more are getting a much better workout and working much harder to stabilize your body and keep you upright. This can be even more beneficial if you try ‘barefoot running’ which means your toes and feet muscles are free to flex around the shapes in the ground you will be as you move. This can improve toe dexterity, prevent injury and generally improve your gait as well.
Then there are the benefits that come from taking your usual gym routines and doing them outdoors. When you lift a log instead of a bar, or pull up from a tree branch, you will be forced to adapt to constantly changing shapes and sizes. Pulling up from a thick tree branch for instance will mean that your hands need to grip around a thicker branch, which takes much more forearm strength. Conversely, a narrow branch may bend which could mean one hand is lower than the other.
Training outdoors means that no two movements are exactly the same and this is the ultimate example of ‘muscle confusion’ (to use the bodybuilding parlance). Take a look at ‘MovNat’ for more ideas and information regarding training in an outdoor setting.
Grounding and Earthing
Another advantage to spending time outdoors barefoot, is that it may have a beneficial health effect called ‘grounding’. This is to say, that direct contact with the ground is thought by some to help provide ‘negative charge’ from ions providing beneficial effects for the central nervous system. This is the result of water from oceans, lakes and more crashing against the surface, which helps to remove positive electrons. By helping to remove positive ions, this is thought to combat inflammation and other negative effects.
This might all sound a little ‘Earth Mother’-ish but actually there is enough evidence for this to support that at least something is going on. There is some evidence to suggest that positive ions in the atmosphere do indeed lead to health problems. Likewise, it has been shown that exposure to negative ions can help to combat numerous health problems including SAD (3). Negative ions seem to improve the flow of oxygen to the brain, thereby increasing alertness and mental energy.
And the studies looking directly at the effects of grounding do seem largely positive so far (4, 5). There certainly needs to be more research into this topic and there are some significant problems with the way these studies have been carried out… but suffice to say that it certainly isn’t going to hurt you to spend a little time in direct contact with the earth – even if that just means kicking back on lying on the grass for a bit.