Building better lives through time outdoors

I suspect most of us know, intuitively at least, that being outside can be of real benefit to our wellbeing. The ocean breeze, the smell of cut grass, the stillness of the forest, the meandering paths through the park - all have their place in our world and something to contribute to our well-being. 

Indeed, writers, poets and naturalists have all written about the impact of the natural world on our wellbeing.For example, John Muir, the Scottish American naturalist and author, known as the ‘Father of the National Parks’ in America said in his book ‘The Mountains of California’ (1901) “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy.’’ Additionally, William Wordsworth in his poem The Tables Turned (1798) urges us to, “Come forth into the light of things and let nature be your teacher, she has a world of ready wealth, our minds and hearts to bless”. As inspiring as these words are, I want to know that they have their roots in objective science – I work in the sciences, after all. 

Our evolution from cave dweller to a creature of the post-industrial revolution has taken place largely in the natural world. While the last 200 years or so have seen us reside in cities, it is but a blip in our extensive history as homo sapiens. We have a deep-seated connection with the natural world that cannot be erased in such a short space of time (Frumkin 2001). The natural world has characteristics that produce feelings of wellbeing and improved mental health that the indoors simply can’t achieve. The clean air, the pleasant smell, the cool breeze and the peace are all perceived as healthy and comfort-giving (Hug et al 2008)

Reducing stress by taking in the natural world

In his book The Stress Solution (2018), Dr Rangan Chatterjee says that being outside forces us to look outwardly as an antidote to the inward-looking obsession we have with technology. It gets you to look up, scan the horizon and marvel at the vastness of everything. Chatterjee goes on to say that “being in nature tells your brain and body you’re in a restful place while your smartphone…. tells your brain you’re in a realm of anxiety and pressure” (pg. 216). Such is the power of the outdoors that people taking part in a study who were simply exposed to pictures of nature experienced increased feelings of vitality. Films of natural scenes enhanced their mood more so than films of man-made environments (Ryan et al 2010). So, while getting outside is important, where we go outside is also important. The more natural, the ‘greener’, the better. 

Kaplan suggests that the effects of mental fatigue can be overcome by spending time simply looking at nature. The more tired we get, the less we are able to attend to the thing we are trying to do. However, by spending time in nature, we can restore some energy and attend to things more effectively. Kaplan suggests that being outdoors enables us to become immersed in the environment and the here and now, giving us a break from the working day. The natural environment easily captures our attention which is a consequence of our evolutionary connection to it. This leads to a clearer head, recovery from mental fatigue, a break from our day-to-day pressures and, ultimately, reflection and restoration. A great deal of research explores this quest for tranquillity in conjunction with exercise. Being outdoors means you are more likely to engage in physical activity – whether that involves constant movement such as walking or running or simply reaching your chosen outdoor destination where you may wish to sit quietly in contemplation. 

Jessica de Bloom and her colleagues from the University of Tampere in Finland explored the effects of lunch-time park walks as a means of recovering from job stress (2017). They noted that taking a lunch break was important to help reduce demands on the self. But they also found that doing something enjoyable with your break can allow you to become reinvigorated. They also noted that those who went for walk-in natural surroundings fared better than those who did so in an urban environment. It was found that participants in one study had a greater improvement, that is a reduction, in the arousal of their sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that fuels our fight or flight response through a rush of adrenaline and cortisol that floods our bodies when we are feeling stressed. Interestingly, the researchers found a more beneficial response when they conducted the study in the Autumn rather than in the Spring - which is worth bearing in mind as we head into the later months of the year. They also noticed that the effects were only present during the study showing the importance of setting time aside routinely and regularly to get outside and exercise. Caroline Webb (2017) notes the importance of micro-rests throughout our working day to recharge our batteries and overcome dips in motivation and productivity reinforcing the conclusions from de Bloom’s study

The effects of the great outdoors on family life

A 2017 study by Izenstark and Ebata revealed some interesting results. They wanted to see if time outdoors led to better attention on tasks and a strengthening of a family bond. They explored this in a study of mother / daughter pairs where the daughter was between 10 and 12 years old. The pairs were asked to go for a walk outside or around a shopping centre while they were observed. They went on to use the same method again, but this time their attention was tested before and after the walk and then they were asked to play a game together that required teamwork. They discovered that those who benefitted the most were the ones walking in the natural setting rather than in the shopping centre. In the natural setting positive interactions between mother and daughter were improved, and attention was improved for the mothers. Meanwhile, the daughters’ attention improved during both kinds of walk. In terms of cohesion and closeness however, they found that it was only the nature walk had the positive impact. Subjectively both mother and daughter were unanimous in their view that the nature setting was more relaxing.

 Ulset et al (2017) point out that, in Scandinavia, it is common sense that the outdoor environment promotes wellbeing and prevents mental health problems. There is a positive link between Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (that we explored earlier) and children’s cognitive functioning. The study highlighted the outdoors as a cheap, accessible and environmentally friendly way of enhancing both the self-regulatory capacities and cognitive development of children. They point out that the word “kindergarten’ means ‘a garden for children’ which comes from a concept developed by Froebelian. Froebelian believed that simply placing a child outside would stimulate play and ‘acting out’ in the real world and as a consequence encourage intellectual development. This idea wasn’t new and harks back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) philosophical idea that children are born of nature, good, innocent, and free, so should, and will, do best by getting ‘back to nature’.

How the natural world promotes exercise

Kondo et al (2019) point out that being outside is likely to lead to being more physically active as we engage with the physical environment. Calogiuri et al (2016) talk of ‘green exercise’ which they define as exercise that provides a synergy of benefits between undertaking some physical activity and being exposed to the natural environment. When compared to indoor exercise, outdoor exercise has been found to be more beneficial to the restoration of cognitive functioning and wellbeing. It helps alleviate the symptoms of stress. 

We know that physical activity reduces stress and improves our physical wellbeing. In many ways exercise is a form of medicine with clear evidence of improvement in a range of health conditions such as depression, cancer, cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal diseases (Snowguard et al 2016). Hug et al (2008) found that people felt less stress prior to exercising outdoors than before exercising indoors - possibly as a consequence of the journey to the outdoor space or the anticipation of heading towards a relaxing environment. 

Conclusion

So, ‘does contact with the natural environment contribute to our complete physical, mental, and social well-being’ (Frumkin 2001)? I would suggest that we have seen enough evidence here to say that it does. It appears to improve our mental health by giving us time away and offering us space for restorative reflection. It encourages us to benefit from gentle exercise (or for some, vigorous exercise), and the evidence from the study of mothers and daughters shows that it also increases social bonds. The impact is universal and cross-cultural with Frumkin (2001) observing that studies across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa all conclude the same. Being outside is good for us.

So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself out there!

Here are a few tips on how:

  • Make it a priority - plan it into your routines
  • Take a morning walk. There is evidence that exposure to the morning sun helps you sleep at night!
  • Take your morning tea or coffee outside and drink in the fresh air
  • Remember to take your lunch break, move away from your desk, and get outside.
  • Plan time outside with others - doing things together encourages us to commit
  • Increase your daily steps. Walk the dog that little bit further.
  • Plan a weekend trip to the park or a local forest.
  • Enjoy reading a book under a tree.
  • Stand barefoot in the long grass.
  • Wrap up and take a walk to look at the stars at night.
  • Get in your garden – tend to it or simply walk around your yard or garden and smell the flowers!
  • Plan an outdoors trip camping is a fun alternative to staying in a B&B.
  • Eat outside – weather permitting!
  • Walk on the beach.
  • Plan a picnic.
  • Go and take some photographs of nature.

 …. it’s out there …. go get it!

 

References:
Ackerman, C. E. (2020) What is Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART)? https://positivepsychology.com/attention-restoration-theory/ (accessed 26th October 2020)

Calogiuri, G., Evensen, K., Weydahl, A., Andersson, K., Patil, G., Ihlebæk, C., & Raanaas, R. K. (2016) Green exercise as a workplace intervention

to reduce job stress. Results from a pilot study Work 53 (2016) 99–111

Chatterjee, R. (2018) The Stress Solution London: Penguin

De Bloom, J, Sianoja, M, Korpela, K, Tuomisto, M, Lilja, A, Geurts S and Kinnunen, U (2017) Effects of Park Walks and Relaxation Exercises during Lunch Breaks on Recovery from Job Stress: Two Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 51(August): 14–30.

Frumkin, H. (2001) Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2001;20(3):234 –240 

Hug, S-M., Hansmann, R., Monn, C., Krütli, P., & Seeland, K. (2008) Restorative effects of physical activity in forests and indoor settings l.J. Fitness (2008) 4, Issue 2, pp. 25-38

Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. T. (2017, November). The Effects of the Natural Environment on Attention and Family Cohesion: An Experimental Study. Children, Youth and Environments.

Kondo, M. C., Jacoby, S. F., & South, E. C. (2019) Does spending time outdoors reduce stress? A review of real-time stress response to outdoor environments Health & Place Volume 51 May 2018, Pages 136-150

Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K. W., Mistretta, L., & Gagne, M. (2010) Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature Journal of Environmental Psychology 30 (2010) 159–168 

Ulset, V., Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., Bekkhus, M., & Borge, A. I. H. (2017) Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children's cognitive and behavioural development Journal of Environmental Psychology 52 (2017) 69e80 

Webb, C. (2017) How to Have a Good Day London: Macmillan

Stephen Mordue is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. As well as teaching about Adult Care on the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes he is Practice Learning Coordinator and Programme Leader for the Best Interests Assessment in Practice Programme. He was a social work practitioner and manager for 12 years working mainly with older people and their families. His areas of special interest are effective communication, working with people with dementia, the Mental Capacity Act, and self care and productivity for professionals. You can read more about wellbeing in his book, available here; https://www.criticalpublishing.com/how-to-thrive-in-professional-practice or by visiting Stephen’s blog for self care www.selfcareshorts.com and social care socialworkshorts.co.uk