Better out than in: the merits and joys of spending more time outdoors
We live too much of our lives indoors. Spending more time outside improves our mood, eyesight, health and sanity,
I’m writing this outside, sitting on a bench in my local park. The odd cabbage white flutters by as I luxuriate in late-afternoon sun and the scent of the last of the purple lilacs. Why, I ask myself, did I not realise the joys of an outdoor office sooner?
For the past year or so, I’ve spent much of my day outdoors. I’m often outside three or four hours a day in the summer months; admittedly less so in winter. Wherever I can, I now swap indoor for out, be it cycling instead of tubing, or exercising in the park instead of a gym. So much so that I am often asked if I’ve been away, given my new freckled look.
Yes, you may be thinking, it’s all well if you are a freelance writer. But what about those of us who depend on Wifi? And how does this work for us office slaves, required to be at our desks? And available for meetings in airless interior rooms?
It’s true: my new life is enabled by work which doesn’t require constant connectivity. But while lack of Wifi is an obvious disadvantage of the outdoor office, and requires some planning, it may also be a virtue, at least for people seeking to disconnect.
Employees may also in future be given more flexibility by their bosses. Some enlightened firms are already realising the benefits of allowing workers to return to something more akin to the life our ancestors enjoyed. They’ve realised such an approach may pay dividends in producing a healthier, more productive workforce.
Welcome to the rise of the ‘walking’ meeting, for example. Who wouldn’t prefer a walk ’n’ talk with their colleagues, rather than being hemmed in by walls, lit by artificial light and breathing air that has been conditioned?
We all have an innate tendency to connect with nature, honed over millions of years – known by psychologists as biophilia. Our bodies understand this intuitively, and yet a study published in
Nature magazine found that the average American spent a whopping 87 per cent of their time indoors, and six per cent in cars and vehicles. A recent Exeter University study found that people who spend at least two hours in nature a week reported better physical and mental health than those who don’t go out.
Teachers are learning from this new outdoor approach. Who says children have to study inside? They too can escape the great indoors, as we have seen with the rise of the Forest School movement, which encourages pupils to spend a sustained period of time in a woodland environment. It is a philosophy based on a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back to the 19th century and to philosophers, naturalists and campaigners such as Wordsworth, Ruskin and Baden-powell.
Given the worrying rise in shortsightedness among the young, the need is pressing. In Singapore, 85 per cent of young people suffer from myopia, according to research from the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus (meaning the condition of having a squint).
Our eyes need to be exposed to good-quality light to develop properly, while Singapore’s hyper-competitive education system has meant that children are buried indoors. Almost all schools could increase the length and frequency of playtimes outdoors, and timetable lessons to allow for walking outside between classes.
Being outside is just the latest of my strategies to ward off an old friend of mine, the black dog of depression. In my thirties, 15 years ago, I suffered two major depressive episodes for which I was hospitalised. Over the years, I’ve assembled and written about a toolkit of strategies to keep the dog on a tight leash: everything from the solace of consoling poetry to the power of good mood food.
Getting out more amplifies the benefits of many of my existing approaches. A poem consoles even more, I find, when recited in the open air.
Who would have thought my shrivelled heart Could have recovered greenness?
These lines, from George Herbert’s The Flower, are even more powerful when brought to mind when one is outside, surrounded by the very nature that Herbert describes.
The wisdom of the old adage mens sana in corpore sano is even more obvious when you escape a shaded, sedentary world. I know that when I’m out in the sunshine my body is absorbing vitamin D, of which most of our supplies are made by our skin on exposure to sunlight. Far better than taking a supplement.
Spending more time outside is empowering. It feels as if I can make a difference to my own wellbeing, because I can! I need not wait to see a psychiatrist or therapist. I am, as W E Henley writes in Invictus, the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. And someone who can walk out through the front door.
If only I had kicked the indoor habit sooner.