What do you think of when you think about your workspace? The harsh fluorescent lights? The recycled air? The sterile white walls that seem to close in on you over the course of the day? This is the place where you spend the majority of your waking hours. But here is a simple fact: Too much of life is spent indoors. It’s not just a statement that that looks good on a T-shirt. It’s a scientific fact. According to a recent article in the Harvard Health Letter, Americans spend 90 percent of their lives indoors. The study goes on to suggest the benefits of even a small increase in time spent outside — and these benefits aren’t just physical. They also have a positive effect on our mental well-being. Here are five ways heading outside can improve your mental health.
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Perhaps the biggest problem with spending so much time indoors is that it actually starts to feel like a natural environment. You can actually develop a dependency for the perceived comfort of the indoors, to the point that being outside of those familiar spots (or outside in general ) can cause a feeling of anxiety and even depression. It’s important to experience the outdoors simply as a reminder that life exists beyond the brick and mortar walls of indoor life. As humans we are born with a desire to experience the world from a variety of perspectives, and it’s important to not dull this desire by boxing yourself in.
Natural light is a natural stimulant. It increases the amount of vitamin D produced by the body, which improves liver and kidney function and can lead to a stronger immune system and higher metabolism. The Harvard study also suggests that being outside, especially when coupled with physical exercise, is physiologically and psychologically beneficial. It reactivates all five senses and returns the body and brain to an active state. If you’re the kind of person who likes to work out in a gym, you might be selling yourself short by not moving your routine outdoors.
The Harvard study suggests that the biggest hurdle to increasing one’s exposure to the outdoors is the belief that being outside is hard, stressful work. You have the elements to contend with, and equipment to buy, and poisonous plants and animals to avoid. Ignore this hurdle. It’s just the indoors trying to keep you from finding out that there’s a great big world outside. In reality, being in nature requires very little. You’ll be surprised how far you can get with a full water bottle and a pair of comfortable boots. And remember, the first step is the hardest. The next million are easy.
So much of life is planned and scheduled that there is very little opportunity for an experience that is truly new and unexpected. From a mental health perspective, this is a problem because it denies the brain an opportunity to be truly stimulated. Repetitious behavior creates a cycle. If you're prone to depression, this cycle can slowly wear you down like a steady stream of water across the surface of a rock. Heading outdoors breaks this cycle, and it forces you to use those parts of your brain that have typically lay dormant.
Aaron Rote is a Chicago freelance writer and poet specializing in quick wit and quick turnarounds.