Let’s Go Outside: Why You Need Nature (Even When It’s Dark Outside)

    Cartoon of two people relaxing by mountains
    Published 22 October 2020. Written by Georgie Lane-Godfrey.

    Ah, summer. Those golden, sun-soaked days when smashing 15,000 steps a day was – literally – a walk in the park, has become nothing but a distant memory. And as the nights draw in and the mercury drops, it’s no surprise that we don’t want to leave the comfort of our sofa to head outside. 

    However, before you succumb to a Netflix marathon, bear this in mind – science shows time spent exposed to green space can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stress, high blood pressure and even premature death. 

    But it’s not only your physical health that will benefit from you being in nature. There are plenty of mental and psychological perks on offer, too: ‘Time spent outside connects us back into the natural world, providing benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing,’ says Dr Rebecca Robinson, Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine. Intrigued? 

    Here are five research-backed reasons to bundle up and head out into nature (even if it is absolutely freezing):

    1. It can boost your creativity

    As more and more of us work from our kitchen table/the spare room/the nearest Caffè Nero this year, those sparky ‘blue-sky thinking’ team meetings just aren’t the same through a screen. If you’re feeling like you’ve got a creative block, Mother Nature could help. 

    A study from University of Kansas found that immersion in nature (and disconnecting from technology) impacted creative intellectual ability, such as problem-solving. Meanwhile, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that walking in any green space for just 25 minutes boosts cognitive functioning. 

    So if you’re struggling to channel your inner Don Draper, try heading to your local park for an Instagram-free stroll. Your boss will thank you for it.

    2. Nature can help you swerve SAD 

    It’s almost as though we’ve pressed fast forward to get out of 2020 as soon as possible as we’re already facing winter. ‘As winter approaches, spending time outside can help alleviate seasonal affective disorder (SAD),’ says Dr Robinson. ‘Taking a break from your desk, especially when the clocks go back, might help your mood, health and productivity.’ 

    And the science agrees: one study by mental health charity Mind asked participants to go for a walk either in nature, or in an indoor shopping centre. Those who went for the ‘green walk’ reported a 71 per cent decrease in depression, while those who went through the mall reported a 22 per cent increase. 

    As to how much time you need to spend outside to reap these mood-boosting benefits – it might not be as long as you think. A recent study from Cornell University found that spending just 10 minutes in a natural setting can help reduce stress and increase happiness. Time to take that mid-morning coffee break al fresco. Layer up…

    cartoon of people swimming

    3. You’ll be rewarded (really!)

    If you’re going to wrap up in your warmest, woolliest knitwear and brave the cold à la Bear Grylls, then you deserve to be rewarded, right? 

    Link your Vitality Member App with your smartwatch to track your daily activity, and you’ll earn yourself some nice active rewards. Think a delicious coffee from Caffè Nero or treats at Waitrose & Partners. The more points you earn, the better the reward, so it pays to get active. 

    Check out more about Vitality rewards here.

    4. Getting outside can improve your sleep

    Daylight influences our circadian rhythms – the 24-hour cycles that make up our body’s internal clock and determine our sleep patterns. ‘Humans have evolved outdoors, so daylight is the strongest time-cue for our internal body clock to help keep it in sync with the external world,’ says Dr Katharina Lederle, Consultant Human Sleep and Fatigue Specialist for Somnia. ‘Morning daylight is especially important to sync our body clock as it signals to our bodies that it needs to start orchestrating all the processes needed for activity.’

    Meanwhile, darkness does the opposite, explains Dr Lederle: ‘Darkness tells the clock that we can now rest and sleep. Indoor light levels are much lower than daylight, which keeps the body clock in a confused state as to whether it’s day or night and whether to promote activity or rest.’

    Heading outdoors, however, can help rectify that confusion, especially as the clocks go back. Recent research from University of Washington found that the wavelengths at sunrise and sunset have the biggest impact on the part of the brain that regulates our circadian clock, as well as our mood and alertness. The message? Take a morning stroll to watch the sunrise for a feel-good way to boost energy (and smugness) levels. 

    5. It can give you a zap of vitamin D  

    As the days get darker and seem to be dominated by work, it’s all too easy to go 24 hours without seeing the light of day – literally. But we should prioritise getting out if we want to make sure we’re getting all the vitamins we need for good health. ‘Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin”, which we absorb directly from sunlight,’ explains Dr Robinson. ‘It’s important for immune health, musculoskeletal and skin health.’

    Remember, how much vitamin D you’ll absorb will be dependent on how much skin you have exposed – a fact which can cause your D levels to drop if, like most people, you’re not prancing around in your swimmers mid-December. But research has found that just nine minutes of sunlight a day throughout the year would be enough to keep you from vitamin D deficiency. 

    So, you have permission to postpone that Zoom call to get some sun on your face – just remember to always wear SPF, no matter what month it is. 

    As a Vitality member, you could get partner benefits and rewards with a range of big brands with eligible health insurance, life insurance and investment plans. Log in to the Member Zone to find out details.

    Image Credit: iStock