We live in a culture of 9-5, 40 hour plus workweeks, coming home at the end of day exhausted before expiring on the couch (and if we find time in there to workout, eat a healthy meal or two, and tend to our pets/kids then we are ahead of the game). It is no wonder many of us do not get outside enough, and in our work-centered lives, we can often forget to make outdoor time a priority. But if we peek outside the window every once in a while, we are reminded that North America can be a beautiful place full of trees, lakes, beaches, and mountains - and getting out there as much as we can is important for our everyday health. Here are some great reasons to make even small daily trips outside an important part of your healthy day.
What are we breathing?
Did you know that upwards of 90% of the air we breathe is indoor air, from our homes, offices, and schools? Poor indoor air quality has been linked to allergies and upper respiratory tract infections and conditions (eg. asthma) 1. Indoor air is often re-circulated through a ventilation system, and can be affected by a number of possible pollutants in the building space including mould, dust, and chemical vapours from building materials and cleaning products. The other occupants of the building also contribute to air quality, and in addition to increasing the CO2 output of a space, they can also introduce perfumes or tobacco smoke - which you could be subject to breathing in.
The air out there
Many of us are concerned about outdoor air quality of course, knowing that the pollution from vehicles, industrial worksites, and burning could be a concern. However, studies have found outdoor air to contain fewer volatile chemicals than indoor air2. And unless you are sitting next to a building exhaust vent, outdoor air is not full of the same dust, mold, and chemical contaminants as the air inside.
Have you ever wondered why being out in the forest makes you feel so good? Well plants produce oxygen, and as such the air near plants is full of this important fuel for our lungs and for making life and the chemical reactions in our body possible. In addition to increasing oxygen, plants clean and remove toxins including formaldehyde from the air we breathe3.
Now this does not mean that you need to drag your desk out to the parking lot or your couch and bed out to the driveway for some outdoor time, but it does mean that you could try to spend more of your day outside enjoying the cleaner, fresher air. At work, get outside for your breaks and lunch: go for a walk to get a snack or drink, put on your runners and make your lunch hour your workout time, or eat your lunch outside near a plot of green space if you can find it! At home, plant an outdoor garden and make time to work on it, sit outside when you can to read a book or catch up on emails, and take your pets or kids to the park or beach.
Get Your Vitamin D
This crucially important vitamin aids in the prevention and treatment of bone disease, supporting heart health, skin conditions, hormonal balance, and much more. We get vitamin D from one of 2 sources: direct exposure to sunlight, or through supplements (or foods fortified with vitamin D). As a result, those people who live in less sunny climates are at risk for vitamin D deficiency, unless they are making sure that their dietary/supplement choices are measuring up. But in the culture we live in today, where we tend to spend more time indoors either working or playing (on our computer, watching tv), it is possible to develop a vitamin D deficiency even in parts of the country that are more sun exposed. And getting sun through your office or car window will not count4!
How much sun exposure do we need?
This is hard to measure precisely, and the amount of vitamin D that is produced in our skin from sun exposure will vary depending on a variety of factors (time of day, part of the world, skin pigment, age, etc.) A general recommendation in fair skinned individuals is that about 10 minutes of midday sun per day should be enough, with darker skinned and elderly individuals requiring a little more. This can easily be accomplished by just getting out of the house or office at lunch or on a midday break: take your dog out, walk your kids home from school, or go for a brisk trot with a co-worker at lunch.
Can you overdose on vitamin D from sunlight?
Not really, but too much sun of course does increase the risk of burning and skin cancer - so make sure to cover up and use sunscreens when appropriate after getting your mini dose a day, to avoid reddening and burning of the skin. You do not need to tan in order to get enough vitamin D - just make sure you get outside at some point during the day.
Unsure if you are getting enough vitamin D?
Recommended dietary allowances are 600IU per day for adults, with an upper limit of 4000IU per day. Before you start mega dosing any supplements though, it is a great idea to talk to your health care provider first. Vitamin D testing is also available (something called a 25-hydroxy vitamin D test) and this is something you might want to chat with your doctor about having, in order to determine the right supplement dosage and regime for you.
Green Space Reduces Stress!
Scientists have found positive quality of life and other health correlations in those that live near green space compared to those who do not5. We are now living in a world where kids spend more time looking at screens than being physically active, making them 3-4x more likely be overweight6. Getting outside means we are getting away from our phone, television, and computer screens - and when we are off these devices we are more likely to be engaging in stress-reducing activities like exercise. The great outdoors offers recreation possibilities that you just cannot find indoors - including hiking, water sports, and mountain biking to name a few. And we know that the more we can be active in our daily lives, the lower our stress levels - physically, mentally, and emotionally. Whether from increased exercise or other forms of stress reduction, studies have shown that more green space results in lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels7.
So whatever your excuse for not getting outside enough this summer, remember these great reasons to make outdoor time a regularly priority in your daily life.
1. Sundell, Jan. "On the history of indoor air quality and health." Indoor air 14.s7 (2004): 51-58.
2. Wallace, Lance, et al. "The Los Angeles TEAM Study: personal exposures, indoor-outdoor air concentrations, and breath concentrations of 25 volatile organic compounds." Journal of exposure analysis and environmental epidemiology 1.2 (1991): 157-192.
3. Wolverton, B. C., and John D. Wolverton. "Plants and soil microorganisms: removal of formaldehyde, xylene, and ammonia from the indoor environment."Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences 38.2 (1993): 11-15.
4. Holick, Michael F. "Environmental factors that influence the cutaneous production of vitamin D." The American journal of clinical nutrition 61.3 (1995): 638S-645S.
5. Stigsdotter, Ulrika K., et al. "Health promoting outdoor environments-Associations between green space, and health, health-related quality of life and stress based on a Danish national representative survey." Scandinavian Journal of Public Health 38.4 (2010): 411-417.
6. Laurson, Kelly R., et al. "Combined influence of physical activity and screen time recommendations on childhood overweight." The Journal of pediatrics153.2 (2008): 209-214.
7. Ward Thompson, Catharine, et al. "More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns." Landscape and Urban Planning 105.3 (2012): 221-229.