Updated: Jan 28
While it is safe to assume that our early ancestors would have used shelters or caves to protect themselves from the elements and hungry predators at night, they would have most likely spent most of their time foraging or hunting outdoors (barring the odd storm). It wasn’t until a few thousand years later, at approximately 4000BC, when more permanent buildings began to appear, though these were mainly used as tombs or ceremonial burial places. It is a pretty safe bet, therefore, to assume that until recent times people did not spend a lot of time indoors. Well, unless they died.
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Imagine a lifestyle of sleeping from sundown where the outdoor temperature drops, until dawn where the temperature starts to rise - studies show that our circadian rhythm is affected primarily by temperature changes instead of lighting levels (1) - and then waking up, walking long distances while foraging, hunting, tending to the tribe or packing up and moving to greener pastures (we were rather nomadic back then). Now compare it to typical modern life, waking to the sound of an alarm, sitting in public transport to a job where you are indoors all day, to then get back on to public transport to go home, where you sit in front of the TV until late at night or the early hours of the morning. There is a vast chasm of difference between these two lifestyles. Oh and by the way, we spent 190,000+ years living, and adapting to, one of these lifestyles.
This disparity has led to an influx of modern ailments such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and is a leading factor in the obesity epidemic plaguing many nations. (2)(3) Many other factors affect this, most not in our control may I add, but when part of the solution is as simple as going outdoors and enjoying the sunshine (or cold) for a few extra hours per week it’s difficult to think why more people do not do so.
What Is Outdoors?
Technically speaking, outdoors is anything that is not indoors - genius explanation I know - and while benefits are experienced regardless of your environment, there are beneficial outdoor environments and ones which are not so great for us. If you live in a metropolitan city, chances are the quality of air and natural scenery is not so great. You may be lucky enough to have access to parks or nature reserves, but with cars and transport not so far away it may be impossible to escape pollution. A recent report showed that some parks in London, such as Regent’s Park and Hyde Park, contain illegal levels of pollution. (4) Instead, everyone should aim to explore different environments which remain as unadulterated by pollution as possible. Go to the coast or a nearby lake, hike in the hills or mountains, explore an ancient forest and find somewhere as remote as possible and spend time walking around, inhaling deeply and appreciating the diverse flora and fauna.
The Benefits Of Being Outdoors
- Vitamin D From Sunlight
Though we are able to get some vitamin D from our diet, there are not many foods that provide us with adequate amounts. Instead, we require exposure to sunlight, specifically UVB light, to produce our own vitamin D through a chemical reaction with cholesterol. Unfortunately, UVB light is the light which leads to sunburn and excessive sunlight exposure has been shown to lead to skin cancer. Read more about vitamin D here. Vitamin D is responsible for bone health and correct immune function. As if we need an excuse to get some extra sunshine!
- Immunity Boost
By exposing ourselves to different microflora - collective bacteria and microorganisms in a given environment - we boost the population of beneficial bacteria living in our sinuses. Hence, the “breathe deeply” part of being outside. Every different environment has its own unique biome and the more ancient the environment the better. Explore ancient forests, hike across open land and breathe in fresh sea air; it all makes a difference. (5) Much like the gut, our sinus contains rich and diverse populations of bacteria which may play an important role to our health and our bodies immune system. (6) There’s a reason fresh air smells so nice...
- Increased Fitness
This one is a no-brainer; being outdoors requires increased activity levels. The uneven terrain and potentially heavier load you carry leads to an increase in calorie expenditure when compared to a regular cardio session in the gym. (7) You also gain all the aforementioned benefits from being outdoors, so ditch the treadmill and say “hello” to the great outdoors.
- Mentally Stimulating
Some of the greatest thinkers and creators from Steve Jobs to Aristotle have all incorporated an element of being active and outdoors into their productive or teaching processes. Increased physical activity promotes blood-flow around the body, including to the brain, and a constant change of scenery can help promote creativity. Try going for a walk in nature if you are ever stuck for ideas, take walking meetings at work to be more productive and spend less time stuck to your desk.
How To Spend More Time Outdoors
(Who comes up with these sub-headings?!) Oh yeah, I do. Look, it’s pretty obvious how you can spend more time outdoors. Just spend more time outside and less time inside. “But John, if it was that easy then we would all do it!”. Yes, I agree completely! Modern life has made something as easy as being outdoors way more difficult than it should be. Long office hours sat at a desk deprive us of sunshine, and when we do get the chance to be outdoors, we are either too tired to make the effort to go out or other things get in the way like TV or socialising indoors (outdoor bars anyone?). There are a few things you can do, however, to increase your time al fresco:
- Take Work Meetings Whilst Walking Where Possible
As mentioned previously, some of the greatest minds did a lot of their thinking and talking outdoors. (9) Where it is appropriate, suggest you take a scheduled meeting whilst walking in a local park or green area near your place of work.
- Walk For A Longer Portion Of Your Commute
Try getting off a station earlier from your intended destination and walking the remainder of the distance. You should also always aim to take the stairs where possible as opposed to the lift/elevator.
- Suggest Fun, Outdoor Activities When Organising Social Gatherings
Outdoor bars, picnics, chilling in the park, walks, excursions and BBQs are fantastic ways to socialise and be outdoors at the same time. Make the most of long summer evenings and warm weather instead of spending all of your time indoors.
- Take Up A Hobby Which Takes You Outdoors
This can range from hiking to wildlife painting. Anything which requires you to be outdoors can help in your quest to spend less time indoors. As with any hobby, the more you try out, the more you are likely to find one you are truly passionate about. For me, nothing beats a long trek in dramatic, mountainous scenery.
- Work Outdoors Where Possible
Where you have control of your work environment, aim to spend as much of it outdoors as possible. Sitting in the park to finish an important report or perfect a presentation provides you with greater stimulus and can help to reduce stress. (10)
Do whatever it takes to go outside more. Rain or shine, warm or cold, the great outdoors provides a multitude of health benefits and other opportunities for you to enjoy.
NB. Part of this article was written on a sunny evening in Maida Vale, London (yes, we do get sunlight sometimes). Practice what you preach!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.