Going back over time (about 10,000 years ago), our forefathers spent nearly all of their time outside. We were hunters-gatherers, which meant constantly looking for food and being alert to protect oneself from animals, and even one’s own kind. Even after we became agrarian and began producing meals in large quantities, we still spent a lot of time outside!
Before the industrial revolution, our lifestyle was mostly agricultural community based, and we lived mostly outside! Our bodies were created to spend time outside. There is one very big hint to this effect. Our skin has the capacity to actually generate vitamin D.
Vitamin D is essential for a variety of reasons. Increased vitamin D3 levels appear to aid in the prevention of chronic illnesses, which may result in an ongoing inflammatory response. The discussion is not simplistic, but part of the equation hinges on this vitamin assisting in the fight against infections, as there is a connection to our gene expression, that in turn can influence our immune system to destroy both bacteria and viruses. This is the world of ‘EpiGenetics’!
Vitamin D deficiency
As I am fair skinned and Celtic origin, I sun-burn quickly. Jesting, I describe my skin ‘cheap skin’, and dark and naturally tanned skins I term ‘expensive skins’. It is really pure jealousy. I cannot tolerate the sun without a lot of preconditioning. But now it seems that adults who have increased skin pigmentation (for instance, those with heritage from Africa, the Middle East or India), or who always wear sun protection, or like me have limited outdoor activity simply because I am not tolerant,…. ALL seem to have vitamin D deficiency.
It seems that this number may be an astronomic 85% of our population, with it higher for senior citizens! Now, that dark pigmented skin with our ‘new’ civilization lifestyle, restricting people to indoors, may be an actual disadvantage! To explain, whatever little benefit in that short time outdoors, is severely filtered. This was okay when we were outside for hours and hours under the midday sun. (But not Englishmen like me!)
In summary, its a finely balanced compromise…not too much, otherwise the risk of permanent damage and future skin cancer…but just enough to get some naturally generated vitamin D, that because of our paleolithic heritage is vitally important.
Kids Would Rather Do Chores Than Play Outside
In the 1970s and ‘80s, kids spent more than two hours outdoors on weekdays and nine hours on weekends, no matter what the weather. In contrast, a 2013 study found children spend just over one hour outdoors on weekdays and about 4.5 hours outside on Saturdays and Sundays. This was about half of the time the children’s parents noted playing outdoors when they were kids, which may be why 44 percent of the parents said they wished their children would play outside more often.
The children, in turn, had a long list of activities they said they would rather do than play outside. This included watch TV, play computer games, play with other games and toys, read books, surf the Web… and even do their homework or chores. As noted in Social Science & Medicine:
“The natural world has long been associated with health and described as a therapeutic landscape, and a growing body of research demonstrates the benefits of interacting with nature for mental and physical health. However, concern is growing that children have lost connection to the natural world and spend less time outdoors, despite the known health benefits of doing so.”
We’re now seeing record rates of childhood obesity, along with increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, asthma, vitamin D deficiency, and ADHD – all of which may be tied to children spending less time in nature engaged in outdoor activity. In fact, a shift toward a sedentary lifestyle and away from active outdoor play has been described as a “major contributor to the decline in children’s health.”
Grounding: Another Benefit of Spending Time Outdoors
The next time you go outdoors, take off your shoes and spend some time walking barefoot in the grass, sand, or mud. The Earth carries an enormous negative charge. It’s always electron-rich and can serve as a powerful and abundant supply of antioxidant and free-radical-busting electrons. Your body is finely tuned to “work” with the Earth in the sense that there’s a constant flow of energy between your body and the Earth. When you put your bare feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons through the soles of your feet.
The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called “grounding” or “earthing,” and its effect is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of. Grounding has been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, enhance wellbeing, and much, much more. When you wear rubber or plastic-soled shoes, however, you are effectively shielding yourself from this beneficial influx of electrons from the Earth.
Simply by getting outside, barefoot, touching the Earth, and allowing the excess charge in your body to discharge into the Earth, you can alleviate some of the stress continually put on your system. Walking barefoot can help ameliorate the constant assault of electromagnetic fields and other types of radiation from cell phones, computers, and Wi-Fi. It’s also thought that grounding may actually facilitate the formation of structured water in your body.
Furthermore, grounding also calms your sympathetic nervous system, which supports your heart rate variability. And, when you support heart rate variability, this promotes homeostasis, or balance, in your autonomic nervous system. This is important because anytime you improve your heart rate variability, you’re improving your entire body and all its functions. If you want to learn more, check out the Grounded documentary (in which I am interviewed). You’ll hear first-hand accounts from residents of Haines, Alaska who have overcome chronic pain, sleep apnea, and much more simply by getting outside and becoming grounded.
Tips for Spending Time Outdoors Even in Cold Temperatures
It’s easy to schedule a weekend hike or occasional outdoor outing, but to get the most benefits you should strive for time outdoors each and every day, even if it’s only for five minutes. To make this happen, outdoor time needs to become a normal part of your (and your child’s) routine. And don’t let bad weather stop you (within reason, of course).
Some of the best times to head outdoors are during a light drizzle, after a big snow, or on a muddy spring day. Parks and trails will be less crowded and you can immerse your senses to explore nature in all of its seasons. Ideas include:
- Walk or bicycle to and from work
- Take an afternoon walk (if you have children, do this after school so they can participate, too)
- Spend five minutes outside immediately upon waking
- Make winter sports a weekly occurrence (skiing, ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing)
- Walk your child to and from school
- Walk your dog daily
- Schedule daily outings to parks or playgrounds
When Is It Too Cold to Go Outside?
This is really a personal decision… but once the thermometer dips down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.6 degrees Celsius) or so, you’ll want to use extreme caution and make sure to protect your skin from exposure if you choose to go outdoors, as such subfreezing temperatures dramatically increase your chances of developing frost bite.
Your cheeks, nose and ears are the most vulnerable, but your hands and feet are also easily affected. Dressing appropriately and paying attention to the following safeguards can help keep you safe and warm when spending time outdoors this winter:
- Dress in three or more layers
- Use a lightweight synthetic material to wick moisture away from your skin. Avoid heavy cotton materials as these absorb sweat, trapping wetness close to your body, which can increase your risk of hypothermia
- Add another layer or two of wool or fleece for insulating warmth
- Top it off with a lightweight, water-repellent, and wind-resistant material
- Wear a hat, as you lose about 50 percent of your body heat from your uncovered head
- Wear gloves to protect your fingers from frostbite. Layering thin gloves with heavier mittens is a good idea so you can remove a layer if needed without exposing your bare skin to the frigid air
- Cover your face with mask or scarf when the temperature is below freezing to avoid frostbite. This can also help warm the air a bit before entering your lungs
- Wear sturdy footwear with good traction to prevent slips and falls on snow or ice
- Check the temperature and the forecast. Health risks increase when the combined temperature and wind chill falls below -20°F
- Wear light and/or reflective clothing, as it gets darker sooner during the winter months. You want to make sure drivers can see you
- Drink plenty of fluids. Staying properly hydrated is just as important during cold weather as during hot weather. If you’re exercising, drink before, during, and after your workout, even if you don’t feel very thirsty, as dehydration may be more difficult to notice during cold weather exertion
- Tell someone where you’re going and when to expect your return, just in case something goes wrong. If you slip and fall in the winter, hypothermia can get the better of you if no one knows to go looking for you
While staying warm is important, a common mistake people make is actually dressing too warmly when exercising in cold weather. Remember that exercise will generate body heat and sweating, even though it’s cold outside. And once your sweat starts to accumulate in your clothes, it can have a significantly chilling impact. If it’s really cold outside, it may even end up freezing close to your skin, which can lower your body temperature and increase your risk of hypothermia.
Staying DRY is equally important as being warm—hence the importance of putting on a wicking layer closest to your skin, and dressing in layers so you can remove a layer or two if you’re sweating profusely. Just remember to put those layers back on once you begin to cool down. Keep in mind that wind chill can make exercising risky even if you dress warmly. As a general suggestion, I’d recommend taking a break from outdoor activities if the temperature dips well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8 C), or if the wind chill factor is high.