10 Health Reasons to Spend Time Outdoors

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By Matt Stone

In the summer of 2012 I toured around the Rocky Mountains with my girlfriend and her daughter, showing them many of the remarkable places and doing many of the remarkable things in the outdoors (like crapping in a hole) that I’ve been extremely privileged to experience.  In the past I have reaped many health rewards from spending a lot of time in the outdoors (I’ve experienced some health detriments as well, from overdoing it with physical exertion and underdoing it on food).

I think the near-miraculous health benefits I have experienced from spending a lot of time outdoors in the past was one of the major catalysts for my interest in health.  The only problem was that the quantity of time spent outdoors to achieve that effect was extreme – not something any “normal” person could do and still have a normal life, job, and that kinda thing.  And it unfortunately isn’t something that, once you’ve done it, the benefits last.  In my experience, the benefits of spending a lot of time outdoors are turned off and on almost as quickly as a light switch.  As soon as you become housebound and 90% sedentary, watching 80’s movies about the outdoors instead of living them, any problems you had prior come trotting right back in.

Still, I continue to think about it, because it truly is interesting.  I always find living a truly outdoor life to be quite a panacea, especially for what have been my most troubling health problems since my teens – back pain and exercise-induced asthma.  Below are what I think are the top 10 most likely mechanisms to the better health that I, and many others, report from spending time outdoors.  You can actually see many popular health philosophies woven into this list.  Bonus points for proper identification of the images used in this post, all of which are movies that were either made or excessively watched by me during the 1980’s (in lieu of spending time outdoors)…

1)      Exercise

While you don’t necessarily have to be exercising when you are outdoors, most do.  Unless you are sunbathing, it’s natural to move around when you are outdoors, and do so almost continuously.  Nature doesn’t provide a whole lot of comfortable chairs either.  Walking for hours and exploring an area comes quite natural in the outdoors, unlike doing it on a treadmill where your body and mind cringe against the mundane task.  The net result is that you end up naturally getting what is in today’s world, an unheard of quantity of moderate physical activity.  And I think there is something uniquely therapeutic about this aside from the postural benefits of spending more time in an upright position, which we’ll discuss later in the list.

2)      Purging of Mental Stress

Spend a day or two in the outdoors and you might find it to be really mentally stressful.  It’s an unfamiliar place with bugs, lightning, darkness, strange sounds, dangerous cliffs, and what otherwise may seem like dangers.  You might also start to get anxious about all the work you are falling behind on, what the stock market is doing, and that kind of stuff.  But spend a lot of time in the outdoors in general, as a way of life, and spending time outdoors will become the least mentally stressful thing you do.  It’s a monstrous reprieve from the sort of chronic, nagging, background mental stress that has become the modern, disease-provoking way of life.

3)      Clean Water

One of my personal favorite aspects of outdoor life in the Rocky Mountains in particular (although I’ve had plenty of good stuff in the Appalachians and elsewhere), is the water.  It’s amazing.  Ice cold, pure taste, picked straight out of a well-oxygenated moving stream – typically within a couple miles of the stream’s headwaters.  No chlorine, fluoride, or other thyroid-destroying halide class element.  I never filter my water or treat it with iodine either, but I do strive to drink from quality sources that haven’t been tainted by manmade chemicals, weird gunk from mines, or excessive amounts of cow poop in grazing areas.  The water also contains live bacteria, and the whole outdoor experience is certainly less sterile than modern life, argued by many to have benefits as well.  I also like to think of the water, coursing through the rocks, as being rich in minerals like the silty glacier water of the famed Hunza valley, although I have no idea if this is true.

4)      Active Brain Use

Watching television, youtube videos, and similar activities that have only recently become a fixture of human life, supposedly send the brain into a low alpha wave state – often more sedated and inactive than brain activity during sleep.  The brain is an incredibly active organ metabolically-speaking, eating up glucose at a high rate when it is being used actively.  Although activities like writing and verbal communication probably trigger more activity, being outdoors and taking in a wide variety of new sights and smells keeps the brain constantly active, and never babysat unless, perhaps, you end up staring into a campfire for many hours (which I suspect is very biologically similar to staring at a glowing box).

5)      Less Screen Time

Along the same lines, living an outdoor life really cuts back on screen time.  I find screens, regardless of whether they are televisions, video games, smart phones, or computers, create tremendous interference with our natural cues for movement – not just for the purpose of getting some blood pumping, but for good posture and proper mechanical function.  The phrase “screen time” is becoming ever more popular in obesity literature because a lot of it is a well-known “risk factor” for obesity and seemingly-related conditions.

6)      Solar Radiation

Humans probably get less sun exposure than any other creature.  Getting lots of natural sunlight is highly therapeutic – promoting natural vitamin D synthesis and protecting against just about every known form of cancer except skin cancer.  Many people hardly see the light of day, stuck in offices all day during daylight hours.  Unless you’re like part Leprechaun or something, with the skin tone of Carrot Top, you can probably gauge whether or not you get enough outdoor time by whether or not you get sunburned when you spend a day outside.  I have reached that point many times in many locales, although I’m far from it at the moment.

7)      Sound

Loud and unpleasant noise triggers cortisol release, especially if you are not used to it.  In fact, as I read in Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, travelers to New York City actually have an exponentially higher risk of having a heart attack while visiting the city, in part because of the constant noise and commotion.  The outdoors is generally very quiet, calm, and serene – often deafeningly so in alpine and desert regions.  And the sounds that you do hear are not like manmade sounds such as sirens, alarms, car horns, and engines – but sounds that are naturally recognized as relaxing.  Things like rivers, waterfalls, birds chirping, and ocean waves are all recognized as very soothing and de-stressing.  I suspect the sounds of the outdoors, at least in a general sense, have much to do with the cumulative anti-stress, pro-health effects of being outside a lot.

8)      Less Time Sitting

The actual activity of sitting is thought to be more of a health detriment than lack of exercise – or perhaps even be the leading reason why being sedentary is associated with higher rates of degenerative disease.  In other words, you may not even have to “exercise” to get the benefits of exercise, but just get off your ass.  The amount of time I spend sitting seems to have a direct relationship with my level of back pain and the injury-proneness of my lower spine.  If I spend enough time outdoors these issues almost completely vanish, but I think much of this has to do with the fact that I rarely sit when spending time outdoors.  If I do, logs, rocks, and other non-comfy chairs assure that I don’t do it for very long at one time.  Sitting is boring and uncomfortable if there is no screen in front of you to stifle your discomfort and restlessness.

9)      Earthing/Grounding

Of all the things I mentioned, I’m most interested in earthing/grounding, or receiving more of the earth’s magnetism by being in contact with it.  I’m most interested in it because earthing is known to decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (thought of as being more of the “stress” side of your nervous system), and because I don’t get many respiratory benefits unless I also SLEEP OUTDOORS in close contact with the ground (only a thin air-mattress separates us).  It’s true, and I have tested this at great length.  I can do the same hike, be outside all day, and not receive the same benefit to my breathing if I come home and sleep in a bed.  Many assume that materials in my home, my bed, etc. are more causal of the asthma, but I have lived in over 20 places with 20 different beds in the last 20 years, and where I live makes no difference.  Only spending the night outdoors does the trick –basically keeping either my feet or full body in almost direct contact with the earth 24 hours per day.  Most science-minded people reject the idea of earthing, because it sounds too hokey or new agey, but I can’t help but give it a chance because of my real-life experiences with it.  Studies on earthing have been very promising.

10)  Less Artificial Light and Enhanced Circadian Rhythms

Artificial light, especially late at night shining right into your frickin’ eyes, is a modern invention and one that a handful of people have challenged as being causal of many modern ailments.  While I wouldn’t go to the extent that author T.S. Wiley has in terms of her witch hunt on the light bulb, anything that has something to do with what happens at night (because of the huge differences I notice when it comes to sleeping outdoors as opposed to indoors with the other variables equal), I take seriously.  When you are outdoors your eyes and skin are exposed to the natural changes in light intensity and solar angle throughout the day, ending with a slow fade out into darkness that prepares the nervous system for sleep.  I suspect the body can time its daily rhythms much better with this natural light cycle (and also lunar cycle, as moonlight has a huge impact on us physiologically when you are out there in it), get better and fuller hormonal secretions when sleeping in complete darkness that comes at a predictable time with a slow, fading, sunset warning, and in turn reap health benefits from it.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on spending time outdoors and the potential mechanisms for why it may yield health benefits.  Anyone else have anything interesting to add or experiences to report?

Bonus #11 – Pooping outside.  It’s thought that the squatting posture, with butt below the knees, is the natural posture for having bowel movements, and modern Western-style toilets cause more straining and issues with having perfect poops.

 

28 Comments

  1. I definitely agree with the health benefits of being outside. I ALWAYS sleep better while camping, never having the frequent wakings or difficulty falling asleep or grogginess upon waking that I experience indoors. And I just feel better in general when I’m camping or hiking or taking walks… which makes me wonder why I don’t do it more often! Thanks for the reminder to get outside – and today is actually a beautiful day outside! (here in Alaska, while the rest of the world has been experiencing a heat wave, we have been experiencing our coldest summer since 1920. Yay for 50 degree weather in July.)

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  2. Earthing/Grounding doesn’t refer so much to the earth’s magnetism as it does the earth’s electricity. Because of that, making direct physical contact is a prerequisite. For example: bare feet, other skin contact, or touching a conductive piece of metal that’s grounded.

    Earthing/grounding is exactly the same thing as that 3rd prong in an electrical outlet. Grounding has a regulating effect on cortisol levels, melatonin levels, white blood cells, red blood cells, inflammation, etc. I learned about it from this book… it’s worth reading, if only because of the cheesy title claim. Grounding is the ONLY thing that makes our baby sleep at night. We depend upon it heavily.

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    • Hey Brad
      I created that cheesy title claim. But I’m OK with your criticism if that’s what got you to read the book. The information in it can indeed do so, so much good. .
      I would be interested in more information on how you use Earthing to help your baby sleep. Maybe you can share with me at info@earthinginstitute.net
      Thanks
      Martin Zucker, co-author of the Earthing book

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      • Martin: Sorry to say, but the title of your book “sucks”. When I clicked on the link and saw “Earthing” the first thought that came to my mind was, “Where in the hell is my Inner-Child?” Understand that I live in California and, as such, have grown wary of neologisms. Usually when I see a neologism on the title of a book, it means that I can expect a tome filled with bromides and hyperbole. That said, I read the descriptions and reviews and will be getting this book. Looks very interesting :)

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        • Hey Tom
          The subtitle was an attempt at attention grabbing. Please note the question mark at the end. We’re not saying that it is the most important health discovery ever, but for damn sure it is a really important health discovery.
          In any case, I appreciate your honest criticism and thank you for sending me to the dictionary to look up neologism. Good word. No bromides and hyperbole in this book, though. We have got a very intriguing story to tell about the real magic healing power of the Earth. Something amazing right beneath your feet.
          Cheers

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          • Yes Thomas, it really is a very interesting and solid book, and not the touchy-feely-hippie book you might be expecting. It’s all about electricity, and electricity is a rather objective phenomenon.

            Martin, I never thought about that before. The cheesy subtitle really is the reason I bought the book (half because I wanted to mock it, and half because I was genuinely intrigued)… so in the end, I suppose the title DID work, lol.

            You asked how we use grounding to help our baby sleep: It’s pretty simple. We just use one of those earthing half-sheets and put it on his bed. It makes him fall asleep faster, and it makes him stay asleep much longer. It’s the only thing that helps (well, that and magnesium oil to help make his legs less antsy… but the grounding is vital to his sleep, whereas the magnesium oil isn’t).

            We started using the earthing sheet when he was 10 months old, because that’s when we found out about earthing. He has always been a restless baby, incredibly happy and healthy and active, but never drowsy. For some reason he has always been unable to cry himself to sleep… hours of crying only makes him MORE wound up. So partly by default and partly by choice, we ended up doing “attachment parenting” instead, i.e., the sort of baby care that all non-Western cultures practice: keep the little baby with you at all times, never let them cry, nurse them to sleep, etc. But even with attachment parenting, he always had difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. The earthing basically has fixed that, although we still have some rough nights every now and then if his teething becomes especially painful. Thanks for helping write that book. We owe you one. (Maybe you could publish a second edition with a different title and a scientific-looking cover instead of a hippie-looking cover? Just an idea. It’s a great book, and I want more people to read it.)

  3. On sleeping in the dark: I read an article (thought I don’t remember the webpage) that said that in one experiment they had people sleep in complete darkness, then while they were sleeping, they exposed the subjects’ TOE to bright light for 1 SECOND – and their melatonin levels dropped.

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  4. I would guess outdoor air quality is a huge benefit of being/sleeping outdoors as well.

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  5. You just listed all the (potential) non-food aspects of the paleo diet. Live like a caveman, but with a modern diet.

    Reply
    • I was thinking the same thing.

      This whole article reads a lot like the “10 Primal Laws” and so on.

      Matt has more in common with the Paleo crowd than he likes to admit. :-)

      Reply
      • Well you don’t have to agree with paleo eating to believe that it is good for you to get outside and be active LOL.

        Reply
  6. Funny,i’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in terms of where to start&go professionally in the future.
    I also notice that healthwise it be better for me to have a physical job preferrably outdoors(though i still dont enjoy being or going into the rain). However i &ave no clue about what to do. Postman(woman) isnt an option since it is only parttime,very highstress and doesnt pay enough. Its more something for people wanting to make an xtra buck. Things such as landscape/garden architect never really attracted me. So,do you guys have any other suggestions? (plesse,keep in mind things like parkrangers arent an option as there are no such parks over here like for instance in the US)

    Im also coming to terms more with the fact that i probably have to give up my dream to for instance become an a-imator/designer or do something like bobsmade,bc energywise i just dont do well anymore being inside behind a computer most of the day. It also makes me very anxious.:(

    Reply
    • What about working at some type of kennel or animal care facility? Those are at least partly outside and plus you’d have animals to love on :)

      I doubt the pay is much, though.

      Helicopter pilot?

      Reply
      • Thanx 4 the suggestion Tierney:)
        Actually working at the animal shelter is something im in the running for,but its only on a voluntarily basis with no option for a paid job. Thats the problem with these kind of jobs.

        Lol….helicopter pilot would take a lot of flying lessons,however its still a job where id be required to sit on my ass.

        Reply
  7. I’m feeling very Bernarrrrrrrrrr MacFadyn lately. I’ve been spending way more time outside and feel naturally like moving more. Another big one for me: swimming in a lake, river or pond! I don’t know why the beauty industry hasn’t picked up on this one. Swimming in a clean lake is like getting some kind of full-body spa treatment. My skin is softer, my hair feels conditioned without being greasy. I sleep better and I feel a surge of hunger for stuff like fruit and veggies afterward.

    Yeah, I’m the heretical mother who doesn’t put sunscreen on her child. He got a mild burn this week-end when he was swimming for like four hours on a really hot day. People were freaking out. We all have very fair complexions and need to have mild burns to tan.

    As I get older, though, sleeping on the ground becomes harder for me. It seems like the things that help me sleep outside: darkness, quiet and fresh air, are outweighed by not sleeping on a completely level surface and sharing a tent with a six year old. (Why does sideways seem like the best way for him to sleep?) But one thing I’ve found that I absolutely love, is the ENO hammock. Damn, I get some good sleep in that thing, and with my feet elevated which is a lot better than having my feet lower than my head, which always seems to happen when you select a camp site. I also like the feeling of air circulating around me. Very Bernarrrrrrrrrr. It was so hot last week-end and five minutes in that hammock cooled me off almost as well as a jump in the lake.

    As for the drinking the water thing, I’m too chicken to try it. I will drink out of springs when I find them in the mountains, and I still do that, but surface water? Um no. We will be in the Black Hills in a few weeks, camping near a small creek, very near it’s source. It sounds tempting but I just picture one person crapping too near the stream and….

    Reply
    • jennythenipper, I got to where I could not sleep on the ground AT ALL about 14 years ago (and the kid was 14 at the time, so I can’t blame him). It was always challenging to fall and stay asleep in the Great Outside, and back when Halcion was available, it was my favorite prescription med for camping as it made sleep, and thus any enjoyment, possible. Even my longest camping trip (16 days on the Colorado River) did not get me to the point of good sleep outside on the ground. Now I suspect this was one more symptom of general systemic dysfunction, which has manifested all my life as gut dysfunction and mental health issues and now autoimmune thyroid disease. But I’m working on all of it!

      Reply
    • My back kinda kills me these days on a camping mattress too. Stupid back. I may be up in the Black Hills in a few weeks too. If I see you I will drink gallons of unfiltered water right in front of you. Then maybe you will stop being a wuss. Depends on where you get if from though. I do go to great lengths to drink from quality sources as close to their headwaters as possible.

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  8. Also, the grounding thing. I’ve been a mukluk evangelist for several years now. I spend all winter in them. My feet are never cold in the outdoors and I go out of my way to walk on frozen, snowy ground instead of pavement. I just think our big bulky, rubber shoes that completely immobilize your foot are stupid. In the woods, I have abandoned my flip flops for moccasins (I found an industrial strength moosehid pair made by the same people who make my mukluks) or just barefeet. I have yet to try a long hike in my mocs, but maybe I will brink them with to the Black Hills and see how it pans out.

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    • jennythenipper–did you get your shoes from Ely?

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  9. 97 degrees F outside. 85% humidity. can’t breathe and sweat has no cooling effect whatsoever. the high bbt, extra 50 lbs of insulating flubber and these climate numbers make it like torture to be outside. so.

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    • Same here in Phx. AZ!!! Easy to say “go outdoors” when you’re not living in hell!!!

      Reply
  10. i’m confused Matt Stone…is this still your site? Your writing skills are easily missed…are you leaving 180? I haven’t been to the site in awhile…did i miss something? Serves me right…right? :)

    Reply
  11. I am interested in earthing, thanks for reminding me of it. I have autonomic nervous system dysfunction which causes my sympatheitc nervous system to be overeactive and over responsive so I wonder if it would help me.

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    • I bet it would, as would just being outdoors and away from screens, with the natural sunlight cycles to set your hormonal rhythms.

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  12. Bonus #12 – Poking dead stuff with a stick.

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    • This summer I managed to slay an adolescent chipmunk with a rock and a $9 slingshot from a souvenir store. Got a huge self-confidence boost and testosterone surge from that. Plus got to poke it with a stick after.

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      • Ha! I take it you’re not a card carrying member of PETA.

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        • I guess I love challenges more than cute, furry lil’ creatures.

          Reply

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