Go Play Outside!

Spring has sprung — and a preponderance of scientific research says you can improve your health simply by heading outdoors

By Gary Drevitch
Originally Posted On April 29, 2013

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Gary Drevitch is senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels. Follow Gary on Twitter @GaryDrevitch.

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Although cool temperatures, and even the occasional snow day, lingered deep into April in some places, it's clear that spring 2013 has finally arrived across most of the country. While the majority of the non-ski instructors among us welcome the milder temperatures, a strengthening school of thought argues that the season arrives with significant responsibilities as well.
 
It's not so much that we should take advantage of the opportunity to go outside, these researchers and physicians maintain — our physical and mental health demand it. And if for some reason we're shut indoors, we owe it to ourselves to at least look at nature.
 
Consider the evidence:
 
Time outside calms us. In a recent study in Scotland, scientists strapped portable EEG monitors to three groups of healthy adults, to monitor electrical activity in their brains. They then sent the groups on a walk — one through a busy downtown district, one through a quiet historic neighborhood and one through a park. The latter group experienced the least "brain fatigue," the distracting arousal, frustration and stress that researchers say makes us less efficient at work and more forgetful in general. The group that went downtown experienced the most mental fatigue, lead researcher Jenny Roe told The New York Times. The researchers concluded that more workers should take a break each day to walk in a green space or simply turn away from their screens and look at the trees outside their office windows, if they can. "It is likely to have a restorative effect," Roe says.
 
We need sunlight for vitamin D. Americans have a chronic vitamin D deficiency, but the nutrient is essential for helping us absorb calcium and facilitate communication between the brain and the rest of the body. But the ability of our skin, liver and kidneys to produce vitamin D declines with age and low levels can affect our hunger signals and mood as well as the immune system. When spring arrives, our primary, natural source of vitamin D – sunlight – is effectively turned back on. Recent studies have found that between five and 30 minutes of daily exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays is sufficient to restore needed vitamin D levels.

It's an open-air pharmacy. A recent cover story in Outside magazine collected current research from around the world on the benefits of time outdoors, including indications that getting out of the house lowered blood pressure and even blood-sugar levels in diabetics; that phytoncides, the compounds emitted by greenery, decreased stress levels and increased production of virus-fighting immune cells; that relaxing outside reduced production of the stress hormone cortisol; that time spent in mere proximity to water significantly lifts people's moods; and that when sunlight hits our eyes, the optic nerve spurs the brain's pineal gland to increase production of serotonin, which cheers us up.

Whether you jog with your pet, toss a ball with your grandkids or take a book to the park, the prescription is clear: To maximize your health in the mild months ahead, you need to leave the couch and computer behind, bask in the sunlight and inhale some profoundly medicinal fresh air.