Our patterns of work and leisure see us spend most – sometimes nearly all – of the day indoors. Maybe we should go outside more often.
A recent article suggested a quarter of Americans typically spend all day inside. Increasingly, the health benefits we might enjoy from spending more time outside is a big story. Reduced stress and blood pressure, improved focus and mental health, and less inflammation and fatigue are just some of the benefits being claimed.
The Slow Home Podcast set its listeners a “challenge” to “try” to spend an hour a day outside. Clearly, some people are finding it hard to make time to head outdoors. I recently polled my Twitter followers and found over a third spend more than 18 hours a day indoors – and my readers tend to be in the more active and outdoorsy kind of demographic.
Going Outdoors Is A New Health Trend
Some new health trend is always grabbing our attention. Drink more water, eat more vegetables, practise mindfulness meditation, get a standing desk, sleep more… Now it’s spend time outdoors.
It’s easy to get cynical about this. But that’s not the answer and it kind of misses the point.
It’s far more interesting to ask ourselves, if the consequence of following this advice is attractive to us, what picture we would see?
Let’s assume it’s all true. What’s wrong with being a well-hydrated person who eats a balanced, sustainable diet, has a calm and focussed demeanour, is physically active yet well rested, and feels connected to nature and regularly breathes fresh air?
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
At worst, we’re a little deluded, but at least we’re doing things we agree with, things that help us feel better. At best, we’re making big, important improvements to the way we live. Where’s the downside?
What Counts as Being Outside?
The obvious question is what counts as being ‘outside’. It’s more than just a few minutes rushing through our daily commute.
Many of the studies cited are specifically about the benefits of being out in nature, like this study on reducing depression and obesity. So, walking along city streets might not count. Other studies highlight the benefits of sunlight or exercise, but a closer look reveals the studies aren’t at all specific about being outdoors. These are just benefits we associate with being outdoors.
But it does seem as though too much time indoors is not good for us, from a lack of sunlight affecting our vitamin D levels, messing the rhythms that regulate our sleep and bodily functions, and creating potential issues with our respiratory system to the increased possibility of anxiety and other mood disorders.
There is a pretty strong case for getting out more, at least out into the sun and fresh air and, whenever possible, out into nature as well.
Thinking about it raises a number of questions. What if we choose to walk to our local shops rather than take a car or taxi? What if we take our exercise outdoors instead of inside a gym? What if we play with our kids in a park rather than in the lounge room? What if we spend less time on devices and indoor entertainments? What if we intentionally look for opportunities to be outdoors when on holidays, searching for activities like hiking, skiing, cycling or horseback riding?
“Walking in nature provides such a mental respite, but so, too, can any number of relaxing activities so long as they provide similar “inherently fascinating stimuli” and freedom from directed concentration.
The Indoor Life as a Marker of Screen Dependency
Ever tried to read the news on a smartphone while standing outside on a sunny day? It’s not easy. Sure, newer smartphones have better screens, but after a few minutes you’ll be craving some shade, maybe wanting to move indoors, just to give your eyes a chance to cope.
But you can sit outside and read a book for hours.
Creating More Outside Time in Our Lives
Of course, we can’t take everything outside. There are good reasons why our studios and other workplaces are indoors. But we can still find ways to go outside.
I love watching films. Choosing to walk to a local cinema adds at least 40 outdoor minutes to the day – and even more, if I grab a coffee after and sit in a local park to think about or discuss the movie, rather than rushing home to blast opinions out onto the inter-web.
All week long, there are similar choices to make, like taking meals outside rather than eating at the dining table, reading a book in a local park rather than on the couch, practising guitar in the courtyard rather than in the studio, or going for a bike ride rather than working out on a stationary bike in the gym.
Not all of this has to be intentional, exercise-y stuff. As I’ve written before, in terms of our creativity and state of mind, there are clear benefits to having non-intentional, or purposeless, outdoor time as well.
Whatever way you can spend more time outside, you will benefit. And it’s going to be fascinating to listen as more people relearn the joys of being outside and share their stories.