Everyday, I have a compulsion to be outdoors. Dance, though awkwardly, in the foliage. Enjoy the tiniest of rodents…that I cannot see…but serenade me.
And, here…here is all the more reason to be the ‘naturalist’ I had been born to be.
Studies first uncovered a link between myopia and limited outdoor time during childhood just a few years ago. At the time, many researchers were taken aback. The notion that child’s play might promote normal eye growth seemed almost magical.
Eyeballs, which develop mostly in infancy, with some changes continuing through adolescence, can be all sorts of shapes. People with myopia have eyeballs that are slightly longer, which keeps images from being focused neatly on their retinas. To a certain extent, nearsightedness is genetic, but kids who stay inside a lot also might wind up with longer eyeballs, since they never have to look out into the distance. One study found just that—kids who spent more time indoors were more likely to become nearsighted during elementary school than those who played outside.
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/all-those-hours-inside-could-make-you-nearsighted
What about my health? My kids are grown! I have my own destiny to deal with. What of these constant journeys…to enjoy beauty in it’s natural state?
Here’s the thing though: spending time in nature isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s actually really important for optimal health.
For instance, did you know that…
• The sounds of nature shift your nervous system into a relaxed state.1
• Being closer to nature is associated with healthier blood pressure levels in pregnancy.2
• Children who are born to mothers who spend time in nature tend to have a higher birth weight.3
• Living near green space is associated with having a healthier weight as an adolescent and an adult.4
• Children who are able to get outside more tend to have fewer behavioral issues.5
• People who have regular access to nature are less likely to be on anti-depressants.6
These are just a few of the many benefits of being in nature, but sometimes just looking at nature is all you need for a physical or emotional boost. In one groundbreaking study, hospital patients recovering from surgery who had a window view of green, leafy trees recovered one day sooner, needed less pain medication, and had fewer complications than patients whose window looked out onto a brick wall.7
Most of us have access to some sort of nature on daily basis, and can benefit from getting outdoors and into some greenery. But what you might not realize is that being outside is also really beneficial to your gut. And when your gut is happy and healthy, it affects the rest of your body in some seriously positive ways.
Here are 5 gut-focused reasons to get outside more:
1. Lower stress.
Being outside in nature is naturally calming (it literally changes the way your brain is operating so you can’t help but relax), and this is good news for your microbiome. You see, when you’re stressed out, the flow of blood in your body becomes restricted, and this includes the blood flow to your digestive system, which is where your gut microbiome lives—this is why stress is often associated with digestive complaints like gas and bloating. Stress also reduces the number of friendly bacteria in your gut, creating conditions that allow undesirable microbes to grow. Over time, the less desirable bacteria can get out of control, causing issues throughout your body.8
But the good news is that the opposite is also true. The lower your stress levels, the healthier your microbiome is, and, even better, once you get this healthy cycle started, it tends to build on itself. Lower stress leads to a healthier microbiome, which in turn leads to even lower stress, which supports the microbiome even more…and so on and so forth.
2. Better immunity.
Your microbiome and your immune system also have a close relationship: since 80% of your immune system is located in your gut, the healthier your gut microbiome is, the better your immunity tends to be, and vice versa.9 Part of this has to do with your body switching into “rest and digest” mode, which it does when you’re relaxed and surrounded by nature. When your body gets into this mode, it focuses on bodily functions that tend to get shoved to the side when you’re in “fight or flight” mode, like your immune system.
Likewise, being around plants means that you get exposed to phytoncides, which are chemicals that plants use to protect themselves from certain types of bacteria and fungi. When these chemicals enter your body, your immune system responds by increasing the number of specific types of white blood cells called natural killer cells. Despite the name, these cells are actually really beneficial: they go after things in your body that are associated with many different health conditions.
Bottom line? When your immune system is supported, your gut microbiome can do its work properly––which includes further benefiting your immune system. It’s a win-win cycle of support.
3. Lower risk of seasonal sniffles.
Speaking of immunity…being outside can also help keep your immune system from overreacting to certain stimuli.10 If you regularly get a temporary runny nose, itchy eyes, or general feeling of haziness when you’re exposed to things like pollen, pets, or dust, it’s likely that your immune system is overreacting to these things, making you feel less than your best in its overzealous attempts to protect you. The answer may just be to spend more time outside, since people who are born or live in microbe-rich environments tend to have immune systems that are “trained” to react appropriately to these types of stimuli.
4. Increased microbial diversity.
Good microbial health is all about balance: the proper balance of friendly flora to less-friendly flora is what allows the microbiome to do its work supporting your health and well-being. The more diverse your microbiome, the better balanced it usually is, which in turn means that your chances of staying well are higher. One of the easiest ways to naturally increase your microbial diversity is simply by being around different types of bacteria, and being outside gives you exposure to all sorts of microbes that can benefit your microbiome.
5. Movement-supported microbial health.
Chances are, if you’re outside then you’re moving around, at least a little bit. You already know that exercise is good for your body as a whole––it supports healthy weight and blood flow, can improve your mood, and even help support your ideal immunity. But did you know that it’s good for your gut too? Exercise increases the populations of beneficial bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract by up to 40%, so the more you’re moving around outside, the better.11
How Can You Get More Nature in Your Life?
We know how easy it is to feel inspired to make a change, swear you’re going to get outside more, and then somehow end up not doing it. But we also realize how very important spending time in nature is, which is why we’ve come up with suggestions that fit any timeframe, any budget, and any location to make it as easy as humanly possible for you to get some nature back in your life.
If you have 3 minutes…
• Get your feet on the grass, even just for a few minutes.
Besides exposing you to some new bacteria, walking around outside is associated with good heart health.12
• Go out of your way to connect with nature as you’re rushing from place to place.
If you’re walking to a meeting, take just a few minutes to smell a flower on your way. Or if you’re waiting in line for a coffee, turn your face up to the sun. It will relax you, plus the exposure to sun will help your body produce vitamin D, which helps with everything from your mood to nutrient absorption.
• Look out your window at greenery for a few minutes.
Let’s say you absolutely can’t get outside today. That’s okay, you can still get some nature in! Looking out your window into the middle distance for at least 20 seconds at a time can keep your eyes from getting too tired (especially if you’re looking at a screen all day), and the natural greens and blues you’ll see can lower your heart rate and make you feel calmer.13
If you have 30 minutes…
• Go for a walk.
Whether you just walk around your local park or simply potter around in the nearest greenspace, going for a walk will give you a little bit more movement in your day, and it can clear your head.
• Eat your lunch on a bench.
Not up for a walk? Just sitting outside is okay, too. Try taking your lunch to the nearest park bench; it’s amazing how much better things taste in the fresh air!
• Lay on the grass and stare up at the sky.
It’s relaxing, it gets you around some brand new bacteria, and it helps promote that “rest and digest” stage for optimal immunity.
If you have 3 hours…
• Have a picnic.
Planning a picnic doesn’t have to be complicated—just throw some healthy food together into containers, put it all in a bag, and take off for the nearest tree. Just remember to stay hydrated, especially if it’s a hot day.
• Go exploring.
Novelty is inherently exciting to our brains, and you never know what you might find when you get off the beaten path. Take this as a chance to play in nature––and get in some gut-friendly movement while you’re at it.
• While away the afternoon in a hammock.
A couple of trees, a book, a bottle of water, and a light breeze…sounds like the recipe for a perfect afternoon!
If you have all day…
• Go on a hike.
You’d be surprised how many nature hikes there are, even in very urban areas. If you’re not sure where to start, try looking at the American Hiking Society website; they have lots of suggestions, and you can search by location.
• Take your family to the nearest body of water.
If you live near a lake or the beach, try spending a day by the water. It can be as low-key (or not) as you want. From lawnchairs by the lake to a day kayaking, it’s all good.
• Get out in the yard or garden.
If you enjoy working outside, this can be a great way to get some exercise and experience all the other benefits of being outside. If you don’t have a space of your own, consider volunteering or spending time at a community garden. Often, you’ll be able to support your neighborhood while enjoying some time outdoors. Not sure where to start? Try searching here.
When you’re inundated with tips and trends for improving your health, it can be easy to forget that sometimes, the best thing you can do is get back to basics: and spending more time outside is about as basic as healthcare advice gets.
If you really want to up the ante, combine your outside time with some simple steps for living a gut-healthy lifestyle! You’ll be set up to see all positive changes that can come with improved gut health, from a better mood and energy right through to optimal digestion, plus you’ll get to enjoy all the wonders that nature has to offer––and that sounds like a win-win to us!
- Gould van Praag, C.G., Garfinkel, S.N., Sparasci, O. . . . Critchley, H.D. (2017). Mind-wandering and Alterations to Default Mode Network Connectivity When Listening to Naturalistic Versus Artificial Sounds. Scientific Reports 7(45273). doi:10.1038/srep45273