“I need some air,” is the universal code phrase for break time. It is said wearily after staring at a computer for too many hours in a row; or with a wild look in the eye, after being cooped up inside during bad weather with small children; or angrily, to signify time for intermission in a lover’s quarrel. Getting a little fresh air makes us feel better, as if the outside air has magical head-clearing properties. Scientists say it isn’t so much the fresh air out of doors that helps us, as much as everything that comes with it.
Get some truly fresh air by taking your break outside by something that produces oxygen. Being near plants and trees reduces our stress levels, improves self-esteem and lifts our mood. Even pockets of nature, like a park in a big city or a neighbor’s flower garden, bestow these benefits. (1) Plants also emit airborne chemicals called phytoncides, to protect themselves from insects. These chemicals cause the human body to step up production and activity of white blood cells, our body’s best disease-fighting agents. Green space has also been shown to help with concentration in adults and children. (2)
Getting outdoors for some fresh air might just put you in contact with Mr. Golden Sun. Sunshine is a natural antidepressant all on its own, but it also produces vitamin D, which helps fight osteoporosis, cancer, depression and heart attacks, among other things. Since we can’t get sufficient vitamin D from our diets, we must rely on the vitamin D-producing effect of sunlight. (Vitamin D supplements are another option, but this blog is sunshine-focused.) When sunlight hits our unprotected skin, it stimulates the body to produce vitamin D. (3)
Since sun also can damage our skin, we must find the balance between getting enough sunscreen-free sunlight but not too much that we start turning pink. This can get a little complicated, because how much unprotected exposure to sun you should have depends on how fair you are, where you live and what time a day it is. In general, the number of minutes for ideal sun exposure is half the amount of time it would take for your skin to turn pink at any given time. (4) Check this link for more details to help you figure out your own personal sun exposure equation.
The blur is you, in motion. When we go outside, we start to move — maybe not fast enough to become a blur, but you get the idea. Moving more has uncontested benefits to our health. When you go out for some air, you may decide to take the dog for a walk. Or you may notice a patch of weeds in your flower garden and jump into some light yard work. Or perhaps your mountain bike might strike you as looking a little neglected, and you’ll jump on for a spin around the local trails.
There is some evidence that outdoor activity improves mental health more than exercising inside. (5) In one study, walkers assigned a nature path showed much less rumination (brooding, or repetitive thought focused on the negative) than those walking on a busy urban street. (6) Exercising in nature even reduces the perception of effort — you can hit greater intensity without feeling like you worked any harder than you do at the gym. (5)
If your break for fresh air turns into a brisk walk around the park, you have scored a mental and physical health hat trick: nature, sunshine and movement.
Sunshine lifts your mood
Walking meetings a la Steve Jobs
- Townsend M and Weerasuriya R. Beyond blue to green: The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context — Literature review. Deakin University: Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences. 2010.
- Immerse yourself in a forest for better health. New York State Department of Environmental conservation website. Accessed March 1, 2017.
- A prescription for better health: Go alfresco. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publications. July 2010. Accessed Mar 1, 2017.
- How do I get the vitamin D my body needs? Vitamin D Council website. Accessed Mar 1, 2017.
- Gladwell VF, Brown DK, Wood C, Sandercock GR, Barton J. The great outdoors: How a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med. 2013;2:3.
- Jordan R. Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature. Stanford News. June 30, 2015. Accessed Mar 1, 2017.