Spending Time Outdoors Promotes Good Mental Health
May 16, 2022
As temperatures warm and days grow longer, spending time outdoors can positively affect mental and physical health. From improving mood to increasing activity levels, nature can nurture us.
Step Away from Screens
Screen time dominates our lives. We spend more time in front of computers or other electronic devices and less time connecting with family, friends, pets and nature. Many Americans log as many as 10 hours of screen time per day. Setting down the devices and going outdoors has been linked to benefits including increased attention and reduced stress levels.
Just as children benefit from recess, adults can benefit from a break during the workday. Stepping outside for a 15-minute walk during your lunch break can increase focus. Physical activity optimizes brain performance while natural outdoor light can improve wellness.
Get Back to Nature
Spending time in nature can be a great way to feel better, both mentally and physically. Connecting with the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors can generate positive emotions like joy, calm and creativity. You don’t have to hike in the woods to gain those benefits. Riding a bike, tending a garden or playing a game of catch with your child can have the same effect.
The goal is to reduce stress and increase serotonin levels. The brain produces serotonin. Serotonin helps with mood regulation. It can reduce feelings of sadness or anxiety and increase feelings of joy and happiness. Exercise and sunlight can help to boost serotonin levels.
Meet Vitamin D, the Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is a nutrient we get from certain foods and by taking vitamin supplements. Natural sources of vitamin D can be found in fatty fish, fish oils, egg yolks, butter and liver. Some milk, margarine and breakfast cereals have vitamin D added (fortified).
Our bodies also naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, as ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays hit the skin. This is why vitamin D is nicknamed “the sunshine vitamin.” Up to 35% of Americans don’t get enough vitamin D due to limited exposure to sunlight, whether due to where they live or because they spend too much time inside. Make sure to find shady spots and use sunscreen when outdoors for prolonged periods, however, especially when the sun is high in the sky. UV radiation can cause sunburns and skin cancer.
Vitamin D supports overall physical health. It helps the body absorb calcium to build strong and healthy bones. It promotes cell growth and benefits our immune systems. But it also may play a role in mental health, as researchers have noted that many people with depression have low vitamin D levels.
Take some time to get outside. Walk the dog. Take your children to the playground. Read a book in the park. Whatever you enjoy doing, spending some time outdoors is vital to good mental health.
Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.
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