How much time have you spent outdoors this week? If the answer is “less than two hours,” it might be time to take a walk — and reap the health benefits.
People who spend just two hours a week in outdoor natural settings, such as town parks, woodlands, state parks, and beaches, report better health and a greater sense of well-being than those who don’t, research has shown.
Participants in this particular study (which was published in 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports) were asked questions like: “How is your health in general?” and “Overall, how satisfied are you with life nowadays?”
These questions tend to be really useful indicators of health and well-being, says the study’s lead author, Mathew White, PhD, a senior scientist and health and environmental psychologist at the University of Vienna in Austria. “People’s answers to these questions correlate strongly with doctor-rated health and objective indicators about how well life is going for someone.”
The study built on previous research, published in Psychological Science and also led by Dr. White, which suggested that on average, individuals have both lower mental distress and higher well-being (as measured by the same general health and life satisfaction measurements used in the later research) when living in urban areas with more green space.
And these studies are far from the only ones to suggest spending time in the great outdoors is good for the body and soul.
Ecotherapy, or using nature-based interventions for therapeutic benefit, is being more and more widely used in psychology, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Here are seven more health benefits linked to spending time outside.
1. Exercising Outdoors Can Amp Up Your Workout
Regular exercise carries a host of health benefits, including improved brain health, stronger bones and muscles, weight management, and more, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But it turns out that your workout might come with even more benefits when done outside.
A past review of 11 studies suggested that participants felt more revitalized and eager to exercise again after outdoor exercise, compared with indoor exercise (though researchers note that some of that evidence comes from lower-quality data). And two separate studies, one comparing indoor and outdoor cycling, and another comparing indoor and outdoor walking, found that study participants were more likely to work at a higher level of intensity when outside, but without feeling like they were exerting themselves more.
2. Time in Nature Can Help Reduce Stress
Time outdoors could help you manage your stress, too. One small study involving 77 young adults with obesity, published October 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology, suggested that walking outdoors relieved stress and improved focus better than using a treadmill indoors.
These findings are bolstered by evidence found in multiple small studies comparing the perceived and actual stress levels (as assessed through salivary cortisol concentration) of those walking in built-up urban settings as compared to urban parks or other open green spaces. Those who walked in green areas improved levels of self-reported stress and mood, as well as decreased levels of cortisol, than those who walked in busier urban centers.
3. Green Space Access May Help Reduce Cognitive Decline
Access to public parks was associated with healthy cognitive aging and a reduced risk of cognitive decline, according to a study published in Social Science & Medicine in January 2018. The longitudinal research looked at participants’ lifetime proximity to parks and green spaces (based on available park information and residential addresses from ages of 11 to 70 and 70 to 76) compared with the participants’ periodic Moray House Test scores — which measures intelligence — to assess cognitive decline and its correlation with access to green space.
The researchers noted the protective benefit of outdoor park access was especially strong among women, those with genetic risk factors for cognitive decline, and those with a lower socioeconomic status.
4. Access to Green Areas Can Help Purify Air and Contribute to Better Lung Function
In a separate longitudinal study published in Environment International in 2020, researchers found that children who grew up with more lifetime “residential greenness” (as assessed by satellite imagery and residential addresses) and had greater proximity to green spaces (like parks, forests, and agricultural land), had better lung function at age 24 than those who did not. These results were independent of air pollution, urbanicity, and socio-economic status, indicating that access to green spaces may improve lifetime lung function.
This may be because flora — like trees, lichen, and shrubs — can help purify the air, especially in densely-vegetated areas like parks and green spaces, according to other research.
5. Time in the Sun Can Boost Vitamin D Levels
Spending a sunny day outdoors could boost your vitamin D levels. This vitamin helps your muscles, nerves, and immune system function, and it’s essential in helping you absorb calcium for stronger bones, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Research suggests almost 50 percent of people don’t get enough of “the sunshine vitamin.” Your body naturally makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but not when that sunlight is filtered through a window, per the NIH.
Just don’t skip the sunscreen — while it’ll slow your skin’s vitamin D absorption, it’s crucial to help protect yourself from UV radiation that can cause skin cancer.
6. A Walk in the Woods May Lower Blood Pressure
According to a past review of studies examining the Japanese practice of shrinrin-yoku (forest bathing), participants who spent time in forest environments had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures than those who didn’t.
Similarly, city residents who regularly visited green areas for at least 30 minutes once a week were also less likely to experience high blood pressure than those who did not, according to a past Australian study.
That’s not to say you should switch out your blood pressure meds for a walk in the park, though.
Ian Del Conde Pozzi, MD, a cardiologist and vascular medicine expert at Miami Cardiac and Vascular Institute in Florida, says healthy behaviors like maintaining a healthy weight or losing excess weight, daily exercise, and following a low-salt diet, in addition to spending time outdoors, can all help with keeping blood pressure in a healthy range. But if you’ve been prescribed medication to manage blood pressure, you shouldn’t stop them without talking to your doctor.
These types of behavioral changes can affect people differently; for some, they may lead to significant enough change for that person to stop or go on a lower dose of medication, he says. “[Some] people will have significantly high blood pressure even with lifestyle changes,” he says.
7. Outdoors Sounds Can Promote Positivity
If you enjoy the sounds of nature as much as the sights, there might be a scientific reason for that. The sounds of nature can help improve mood and boost positive affect (the term for positive emotions like joy, satisfaction, and cheerfulness), according to a review published March 2021 in Environmental Sciences.
Researchers found that animal sounds (like bird calls), wind sounds, and water sounds were associated with lowered stress levels and greater joy — and in turn, these effects helped decrease pain, lower stress, and boost cognitive performance.