Sometimes finding the motivation and energy to get the whole family up and out for a walk in the fresh air can be a bit of a task – especially in the winter months when the nights draw in, it’s cold and grey, and you can’t think of any reasons to go outdoors.
But when it comes to looking after our mental health, spending some time in the great outdoors is one of the very best things we can do.
At the most basic level, it’s about switching off the screens and connecting. Enjoying a shared experience together. And the outdoors has so much to offer – it’s not hard to find something fun that you can do as a family.
Look deeper, however, and it starts to get scientific! Our mood is closely linked to daylight.
You may have noticed that on a bright sunny day with a clear blue sky, it’s much easier to get up out of bed in the morning. Life feels a bit better, and you feel naturally happier.
Open the curtains to grey, dark and cloudy skies, however, and your mood is likely to feel the same! So what is it about the sunshine, about stepping out and breathing in the fresh air that brings us happiness and nurtures our mental health and wellbeing?
Reasons to go outdoors #1 – Light
Negative changes in our mood have been linked to the way our bodies respond to daylight. When light enters our eyes, it sets off reactions in the body, reducing our hormone melatonin levels.
Having higher levels of melatonin has been linked to lethargy and depression. So in the winter, when it’s darker for longer, it’s more common for us to feel low. Many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) at this time.
The more light you can get into your life, the better – reason enough to get outside as much as you can, even if it’s just for a play in the garden together.
Reasons to go outdoors #2 – Sunshine
If we don’t get enough Vitamin D, our mental health can suffer. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” – made in the skin and absorbed by our bodies from the action of sunlight (the very best source of Vitamin D there is, never mind the supplements).
Vitamin D not only helps keep bones healthy and strong, helps cell growth, and is good for the immune system. Vitamin D helps us to produce the chemical Serotonin, which our brains use to regulate mood.
Researchers believe that because Vitamin D is important to brain function, then insufficient levels play a role in depression and other mental illnesses. People experiencing depression have been found to have lower levels of Serotonin, especially in winter.
So taking the family for a simple walk in the sunlight will help keep Serotonin levels as they should be and banish those winter blues away.
Reasons to go outdoors #3 – Great Green Exercise
We all know that it’s important to keep active no matter what the weather. The mental health charity Mind is obvious in its message that people who are more physically active have more positive emotions and higher levels of self-esteem.
Spending time outdoors is thought to help us de-stress by reducing levels of cortisol, a “stress hormone”, in the brain. Recent studies reveal that just five minutes of “green exercise”, an exercise in a natural environment, can rapidly improve mental wellbeing and self-esteem, particularly in young people.
Adults and children alike, we all suffer from stress. Busy work schedules, school routines, exam pressure, homework, money matters, family and health matters, you name it, sometimes it all gets too much.
While it isn’t a cure-all, just having some time out to play outdoors (adults too!), especially in a natural outdoor environment away from noise and pollution and flashing screens, offers some escape from this and helps bring stress levels down.
So if you haven’t already sent them to fetch their shoes and coats – now’s the time!
Author Bio: Emma Homan is an Educational Copywriter for Pentagon Play who design and install outdoor learning environments for schools and nurseries across the UK.