What are the benefits of being outdoors? A scientific answer

Chiropractic | Functional medicine

“Go outside and play”. We all heard it growing up. Our parents chasing us away from the TV or video games to go outside and get some sunlight. As the adage goes, mom knows best. The benefits of being outdoors and the benefits of sun, in particular, are immense for our health. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind the outdoors and the sun.

Sun

The benefits of being outdoors

The benefits of sun

A cautionary tale to start

As is with most elements of our health, moderation is key. While an avocado can lower cholesterol, it is also extremely high in calories. Eating mounds of avocados wouldn’t be great for your health despite their cholesterol lowering properties because it would result in an abnormally high calorie intake.

The same can be said for the sun. We’re going to explore some major health benefits of being outdoors and benefits of sun. This however, is not to say you should be throwing away any SPF product you own. There is significant risk of skin cancer and heat stroke when spending too much time in the sun. So remember: moderation is key!

 

 

The sunshine vitamin

The first and most well-know of the benefits of sun is Vitamin D. But why is Vitamin D so beneficial?

Vitamin D, including D-1, D-2 and D-3, are essential for regulating the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, and facilitating normal immune system function. Calcium and phosphorus aid in maintaining healthy bones and teeth whilst your immune system aids in fighting against disease. A lack of vitamin D may result in soft bones (osteomalacia) or fragile bones (osteoporosis).

As one of the benefits of being outdoors, your body naturally produces Vitamin D in your skin when your skin is directly exposed to sunlight. You can get Vitamin D through supplements and food but the best source is of course, the natural benefits of sun. A lack of Vitamin D may lead to vitamin D deficiency – a condition that 1 billion people worldwide suffer from.

What happens when my Vitamin D is low?

Fatigue
A general feeling of tiredness and feeling unwell,
Severe bone or muscle weakness
You may feel this when climbing a flight of stairs or trying to stand up from the floor
Stress fractures
Particularly in your pelvis or hips

A doctor can diagnose Vitamin D deficiency with a simple blood test. If you are vitamin D deficient, he or she may prescribe supplements, an adapted diet or more time in the sun.

Increased serotonin

Light and darkness control two important hormones in our bodies. Namely, Serotonin and Melatonin. Serotonin is produced during light hours and aids with positive mood concentration and calmness. Melatonin is produced during darker hours and aids in sleep. The benefits of being outdoors, the benefits of sun and the correct balance of light and dark exposure will leave you feeling happier and sleeping better.
Serotonin is produced when sunlight hits the retina of your eye. This feel-good hormone prevents major depression with seasonal pattern (formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD), a condition in which your mood experiences severe negative effects during the Winter months when the days are shorter.

Increased exposure to the sun (and therefore increased serotonin production) is known to assist with many mental health disorders and is just one of the benefits of being outdoors.

Benefits of sun

What can serotonin do for me?

Types of major depression

Including Major depression with mood, major depression and major depression with seasonal pattern

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

This is a severe form of PMS that includes physical and behavioural symptoms that usually onset 1-2 week before menstruation and resolve with the onset of menstruation

Pregnant women with depression

This is a commonly problematic experience for pregnant women as hormone levels fluctuate and cause a change in behaviour and mood

Anxiety-related disorders

Including OCD, PTSD, Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia

Panic attacks

This is a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety, based on a perceived threat rather than imminent danger

Reduced inflammation

Inflammation has been linked to autoimmune disorders, depression and even cancer. Studies show the benefits of being outdoors or in ‘green spaces’ may decrease inflammation due to increased levels of oxygen in the blood stream and a light increase in physical activity.

Stress, which has been linked to inflammation, also decreases outdoors and has shown to have a positive effect on inflammation and chronic pain.

Burn more calories

Whilst outside you are more likely to be active and engaging in activities such as walking, hiking, cycling and running. Naturally, these burn calories. In general, staying inside is associated with a sedentary lifestyle which can cause high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress and weight gain.

The benefits of being outdoors also include your body working harder to balance CO2 levels and consume oxygen. This requires more energy and therefore burns more calories.

Relieve pain

Studies show that surgical patients who spend more time enjoying the benefits of being outdoors recover faster, thus, surgical patients are encouraged to get outside and get light exercise.

Oxygen is well-known to increase the speed at which the body heals (this is why many patients are put onto oxygen masks when recovering). Every breath you take converts to energy. Human cells use nutrients from food and oxygen to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source that fuels cell function. If your cells receive too little oxygen, they produce less energy. If your cells need more energy, they use more oxygen. That’s why your breathing rate increases when you exercise. In essence, getting some fresh air is just what the doctor ordered!

The same can be said for those who suffer with chronic pain. Enjoying the benefits of being outdoors will not only increase your oxygen levels but decrease your stress levels. This will assist with both prevention and cure of pain.

Protect-your-eyesProtect your vision

It is well-known that spending too much time in front of the TV or computer is bad for your eyes. But why?

Simply put, when your eye does not ‘practise seeing far’ by enjoying the benefits of sun, it becomes weaker at seeing far. Think of what happens to your body’s muscles when you do not use them, in natural entropy they become weaker. Your eye is designed to see both far and near and when we neglect to put ourselves in situation where the ‘seeing far’ function can be exercised it can cause near sightedness (Mytopia).

Mytopia is somewhat of a phenomenon in recent history. As the world develops into a technology driven environment, children are spending less time outside and developing Mytopia far more frequently than previous generations. In some nations more than 95% of children and teens may need to wear glasses to correct for Mytopia.

You can protect yourself from the unnecessary onset of Mytopia by taking frequent trips outs to ‘stretch your eyes’.

How much time should I spend enjoying the benefits of being outdoors?

The answer differs based on your level of fitness and your lifestyle. As a general consensus the minimum time one should spend outside is 2 hours per week. This time enjoying the benefits of sun should be spent with direct sunlight on your face and arms preferably in the middle of the day to maximise the amount of UV rays reaching your skin.

What are the benefits of being outdoors?

The health benefits include increased positive mood, sounder sleep, stronger bones, reduced inflammation, reduced and prevented pain, burning more calories and protecting your vision.

Moderation is key. When enjoying the benefits of being outdoors and benefits of the sun, take the necessary precautions when going outside, wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen and stay well hydrated. Make sure to avoid becoming sunburnt and move into a shady area if you become excessively hot or fatigued. Remember to wear a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays.

If you have a low level of fitness and plan to start exercising outside be sure to start slowly and listen to your body.

A helping hand

Dr Matt le Roux works with a variety of concerns, ranging from acute, chronic pain and complex injuries to nutritional, lifestyle, and performance enhancements. He is specialised in Sports Chiropractic and therefore can help you address concerns you may have about the benefits of being outdoors and the benefits of sun. Contact Dr. Matt le Roux today.

References

Trip Oustide. 2019. 13 remarkable health benefits of getting outdoors.
https://www.tripoutside.com/health-benefits-of-getting-outdoors/

Select Health. 2020. 7 Health Benefits of Sunlight
https://selecthealth.org/blog/2020/07/7-health-benefits-of-sunlight

Healthline. 2018. What Are the Benefits of Sunlight?
https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#outlook

Healthline. 2017. The Benefits of Vitamin D
https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/benefits-vitamin-d

Tri-City Medical Centre. 2020. 5 Ways the Sun Impacts Your Mental and Physical Health
https://www.tricitymed.org/2018/08/5-ways-the-sun-impacts-your-mental-and-physical-health/

WebMD. 2020. Getting outside.
https://www.webmd.com/balance/ss/slideshow-health-benefits-nature

Valeo. 2020. The benefits of oxygen.
https://valeowc.com/the-benefits-of-oxygen/

Science News for Students. 2021. Getting outside is good for your eyes.
https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/outdoor-time-good-your-eyes

Dr. Matt le Roux is a man of many talents: chiropractor, sports scientist and functional medicine practitioner. His science-based approach motivates him to explore the synergy between health and performance that changes the way you move, live, train, think, and eat.

Dr Matt le Roux

Chiropractor, Functional medicine practitioner

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