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Want a healthier heart and longer life? Get outside!

Outside is nice. If it’s just the right kind of day for you, it’s an easy ask to get you outside and into the ‘fresh’ air (depends on where you are, how many fires are burning, etc – but let’s stay positive for the sake of the narrative, ok?)
In truth, as dystopian as it may seem, the outdoors is becoming a thing of myth only seen in the background of your favourite shows on one of the 9 streaming services that you’re subscribed to (it’s cheaper than cable, right? RIGHT?!) In fact, it will sound zany, but a study done in 2001 by scientists working with the EPA in the US found that (at that time) people were spending upwards of 93% of their lives indoors.  Now that was in 2001 when Netflix was in its first big growth stage, but with the cornucopia of content options, games, social media, etc. that we have available to us now, I worry that somehow if the aforementioned study was done again we’d be somehow well into the 3 digits of percent of time spent indoors.
It’s gotten so desperate that scientists started to do studies on whether LOOKING outside had any effect on health versus BEING outside. There is a lot of discussion about how looking outside forces your eyes to focus on things that are further away than the screens that you stare at all day, which is important for eye health. Further, moving hospital patients to windows or giving them access to fresh air in some studies on both spinal injury patients and post-cesarean patients potentially improved their healing outcomes, though it was stated in both that further studies would be needed to correlate and quantify the results that they were seeing.
Again – we’re going back to our good place, and staying positive. So let’s talk about what it means to actually go outdoors and experience the terror of outside.
There is a ridiculous amount of research that has gone into one of the most basic opportunities for most humans on the planet, which is to go outside.* Children with ADHD showed benefits like higher scores on concentration tests or even just exhibiting fewer symptoms of ADHD than kids who engaged in the same activities inside.  This was from as little as 15 minutes outside (note: this study provided a structured experience with kids engaged in their surroundings).
For adults, there are multiple studies that show a decrease in cortisol levels after spending time in natural environments as opposed to standard urban circumstances.
In Japan in the 1980s when depression and suicide was endemic in the rapidly developing urban centres of the country, the Japanese government started funding studies on the effect of being outside amongst trees. They found many benefits, and based on this started a national health campaign that encouraged Shinrin-Yoku, which translates to “Forest Bathing”. This was aimed at getting the general public to make use of the country’s wooded areas as part of a healthy lifestyle. From there countless studies have been done on the effects of the outdoors on human health, and all of them find benefit. Some of the correlated improvements include:
  1. A healthier heart
  2. Improved immunity to cancer and viruses
  3. Reset your sleep cycle for a better night’s sleep
  4. Improved mood
  5. Reduction in stress hormones
  6. Longer life expectancy
  7. Reduction in ADHD symptoms
  8. Better eye health
  9. Improved memory
  10. Benefits to creativity
  11. Improved mental health
  12. Better academic performance
  13. Reduced blood pressure
  14. Cardiovascular relaxation
Even sitting in nature makes a difference! In a study that had participants sit and view the landscape in a forest environment for 15 minutes, it was found that the participants’ blood pressure lowered an average of 1.7% over that of a control group.
Being in the forest has an interesting effect on your immune system, too. Many plants common to forests and woodland areas produce compounds called phytoncides. According to a study published in 2009, these compounds increased the activity of cells vital to our immune systems.
In the forests, we breathe in these phytoncides and as a result the number and activity of the white blood cells known as “natural killer cells” (or “NK” for short) increases. These NKs have been shown to attack pathogens, viruses and have even been shown to attack tumors. (This does not purport to be a cure for cancer in these studies, but it is colloquially suggested that this could be an assistant to other cancer-fighting efforts.)
A region in Scotland even found the benefits to be so important and simple to implement that they developed a framework for doctors to PRESCRIBE outdoor activities. That’s a wild thought, but worth considering from the perspective of something that should be relatively easy to include in your own health journey. A walk, even if you have to schedule it, even if you have to effort it with a drive or a bus ride, through a natural setting seems to be one reasonably important key in your health journey.
The government of Canada’s newest guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week to maintain a reasonable level of health. A brisk walk outside is a great start, and a local park with groomed trails and a little elevation or distance is a great progression from there.
Any which way you do it, it sounds like a great addition to your health plan is to just go outside and find a tree. Any tree really. Even better if there are a few trees together. What’s that called? A forest? Yeah – you may have seen one of those on the Walking Dead or A Quiet Place. We promise there are no zombies or monsters casually meandering through the paths. Bears maybe, but not zombies. So go on out there and get some natural light, some fresh air and some focal perspective on things.
(*Quick note to state the point of privilege that this perspective is coming from, as there are an increasing number of under-homed and homeless people throughout North America and abroad, and this entire article does not address that very important issue.)

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