Head Outdoors for Better Health

Head Outdoors for Better Health

Going outside for just a few minutes each day can have massive health and happiness benefits

people biking outside

With streaming television, your smartphone, and a comfy couch calling your name, heading outdoors for a hike or walk in the park might be the last thing you'd want to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But doing so isn't just a way to get fresh air and exercise. Even a few minutes outdoors can result in a trove of health benefits. “Exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, whether a view of nature from a window, being within natural places, or exercising in these environments,” says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex in England and author of “This Luminous Coast.”

Reap these five major health benefits by going outside today.

Health Benefit #1: A Sharpened Mind
“As we spend more time outdoors, it improves our overall attention, memory, and ability to focus,” says Laurie Harmon, Ph.D., assistant professor of recreation management and therapeutic recreation at The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Anything that we can do to give ourselves a chance to reset, focus our attention, and improve memory skills is important.” Engaging in outdoor activities can increase environmental awareness, boost creativity, foster social bonds, and influence positive behavioral choices, Pretty says.

Health Benefit #2: A More Scenic Workout
A fit body isn’t the only reward of taking your workout outside. “We have shown that just five minutes of exercise in a park, on a nature trail, or other green space will benefit mental health," Pretty says. Drawing from various studies of people of different ages, genders, and health conditions, researchers have linked “green exercise” to a deeper sense of well-being, lower risk of developing mental illness, and higher level of physical activity. Plus, we may perceive outdoor activity as easier, so our drive to keep moving and stick to a workout plan is stronger than it is indoors.

Health Benefit #3: Less Stress
“When we start to examine people’s understanding of what ‘feeling better’ means, they describe it as feeling emotionally restored,” Harmon says. And being in nature does just that. Studies show that simply seeing the color green puts you in a pleasant mood and relieves stressful feelings. If you’re having a bad day or dreading the gym, stepping outdoors can give you a sense of ease.

Health Benefit #4: A Boost of Confidence
“Spending time outdoors gives us that rejuvenation of building our own sense of self,” Harmon says. “As we jog, walk, swim, or ski outdoors, we begin to pay attention to our surroundings and have the ability to distance ourselves from work stress.” In turn, it’s a safe haven for self-exploration and intuitive thinking. Challenging our outdoor skills, whether by hiking or rock climbing, also ups our self-esteem, she says.

Health Benefit #5: A Longer Life
People who spend time outside tend to have a higher quality of life and may live longer, Harmon says. “Green space is important for mental well-being, and levels of interaction and engagement with nature have been linked with longevity and [a] decreased risk of mental illness in a number of countries,” Pretty says. Until recently, no one realized how quickly the outdoors sparked positive changes. Five minutes is all you need, Pretty says, but once nature works its restorative charm, you’ll probably want to spend more time outdoors.

Need some ideas for getting outside? Pretty offers these tips:

  • Snap some pictures. If you head outdoors with your camera, you’ll have memories of your time in nature and get a chance to explore your artistic side.
  • Head to an off-leash dog park. Studies show that dog owners tend to stay fit year-round. Non-owners can get inspired to move by being around active pups and their keepers.
  • Go seasonal sightseeing. Consider a walk through a botanical garden in the spring or summer, or corn mazes and campfires in the fall or winter.
  • Try geocaching, a free outdoor treasure hunt for children and adults

For any questions regarding mental health coverage, benefits, or providers, please call the Mental Health/Substance Abuse phone number on the back of your member ID card.