Challenging though it has been, one of the unexpected positives of these unprecedented times for many, has been spending more time than usual outdoors. It has been one of the few things we were allowed, even encouraged, to do when most other activities were off-limits. The natural world being oblivious to the pandemic, I for one, found that walking and cycling helped restore a sense of calm at a time when the world was in chaos and when working in a high risk hospital environment could be frightening.
The revitalising effects of outdoor activity has long been recognised across cultures, as illustrated by the ritual in many faiths, of pilgrimage to sites of religious significance; journeys of hundreds of miles, usually on foot. The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), a 500 mile walk across France and northern Spain was originally undertaken by Catholics in the Middle Ages, in penance for their sins. Nowadays only a minority of the 200,000 “pilgrims” who undertake this walk each year do it for religious reasons; most are seeking something other than spiritual atonement; the promise of escape and adventure, headspace to help to process grief or an opportunity for reflection before embarking on a new chapter in their lives. Carrying your necessities on your back (you quickly learn to be frugal!), walking miles across open terrain during the day, nursing blistered feet in the evening and sleeping in hostels or (for the really hardcore) under the stars, banishes any preoccupation with first world problems and creates space for self-discovery.
So, does the scientific research prove the benefits of outdoor physical activity? You betcha…
1) Improved mood: Levels of the “happy hormone”, serotonin are reduced in depression. Both exercise and sunlight exposure have been shown to elevate serotonin to an extent comparable with some antidepressant drugs. Effective therapy without the side effects!
2) Reduction of blood pressure: Simply looking at trees has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, both of which are contributors to raised blood pressure (essential hypertension). Add moderate physical exertion and, hey presto, your blood lipid (e.g. cholesterol) and glucose profiles can also be improved…goodbye statins, see ya later diabetes!
3) Improved immunity: Having our systems bombarded by all that nature can throw at us is something humans are evolved to deal with. The chemicals in our indoor environments (air fresheners, detergents, disinfectants, etc) are in some cases directly toxic; others confuse our immune systems. Unable to classify these newbies into friend or foe, it tends to err on the side of caution, precipitating allergies and autoimmune disorders and distracting it from its work of killing cancer cells and fighting off actual harmful invading micro-organisms.
4) Accelerated recovery: Following illness, patients who spend time outdoors tend to need fewer painkillers, experience faster recovery times and are discharged earlier from hospital than those who rehabilitate exclusively indoors. Outdoor activity is especially helpful during recovery from drug addiction.
5) Improves sleep: The combination of fresh air and exercise makes us feel mentally relaxed but physically tired, helping us fall asleep more quickly. Getting your outdoors activity hit early in the day when levels of blue light are highest helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, around which all of our bodies’ processes are timed and facilitates a restful night’s slumber.
6) Strengthens bones: Vitamin D is produced by our bodies in response to sunlight; deficiency is endemic in the UK, leading to osteoporosis and other longterm risks to health. A daily 20 minute outdoor walk will boost your levels, reducing the need for supplementation.
7) Makes you cleverer: Ok, that may a bit of a stretch but it certainly improves concentration and problem-solving ability. The headspace created helps to boost creativity and it has even been shown to improve symptoms of ADHD.
8) Boosts self-esteem: An unexpected benefit but one which has been proven in numerous studies of adolescents through to senior citizens. Gentle exercises such as walking or cycling appear to be most beneficial.
9) Weight control: It’s not just the additional calories you expend during the physical activity, it’s the global effect of reduced cortisol, optimised blood sugar control, increased muscle mass and improved sleep, all of which contribute to a leaner, healthier bod.
10) Improves your social life: More of us than ever live alone, yet we are social animals and the need to connect is innate. Indeed, social isolation actually shortens lifespan. Outdoor activities lend themselves to social connection; joining a rambling or cycling group is a great way to make new friends and explore the great outdoors. And guess what – not only will you be healthier, stronger, leaner, cleverer and more confident, it also boosts libido, so you’ll be sexier too!
Suddenly getting the inexplicable urge to don those padded lycra shorts? Me too!
Love Julia x
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