Plenty of research has emerged in recent years about the overall health benefits of spending time outdoors, from positive childhood development to lowering the risk factors of high blood pressure and improving memory. Intuitively, we know nature is good for human health. But does time in nature play a role in disease prevention? As we work to contain the rapid and global spread of the COVID-19 virus (coronavirus) through self-quarantine and limiting physical contact with others, let’s look at the relationship between nature and keeping communicable disease at bay.
The Outdoors Can Improve Your Overall Health
In the coming months, the CDC expects most of the U.S. population will be exposed to the virus (Yale Medicine). While doctors learn more about transmission, Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist Joseph Vinetz, MD says, “The best thing you can do at this point is to take care of yourself the way you would to prevent yourself from getting the flu.” Here are a few ways the outdoors plays a role in keeping you healthy:
Going outside helps boost your vitamin D intake, which is important for your immune system, as well as your bones, blood cells, and mineral absorption.
The outdoors helps set your sleep cycle, resulting in better sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced.
Many plants put substances, including organic compounds called phytoncides, into the air that seem to boost immune function. Sunlight also seems to energize special cells in your immune system called T cells that help fight infection (WebMD).
Typically, people are more active when they go outdoors – walking, riding a bike, or kicking around a ball for example. Getting in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to brisk activity can help your immune system keep viruses at bay.
Indoor air can be dirty with pollen, mold, dust, and pet dander. The outdoors, as long as it’s not being polluted by heavy industrial activity, offers fresher air. Fresh air benefits a number of systems in your body including your digestive and cardiovascular systems. Fresh air boosts immunity by increasing the amount of oxygen we get, in turn helping white blood cells function properly to kill bacteria and germs.
The Outdoors Can Limit Exposure
Being outside, even in a community space such as a park or hiking trail, doesn’t pose the same risks as being indoors in a public space. We know that the coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Outdoor spaces also allow you to more easily distance yourself the recommended 6-10 feet from non-family members.
“It’s safer to be outside than inside when it comes to disease transmission. When people congregate together and someone sneezes or coughs, droplets get onto objects that people touch, and then people touch their face,” David Nieman, Dr.PH., health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus explains.
So, while the outdoors doesn’t stop the spread of disease, you can feel more confident that you are limiting exposure when outside.
Sunlight vs Coronavirus
Scientists believe that the coronavirus can live on surfaces for multiple days. On cardboard, it can live up to 24 hours and on metal and plastic the virus can survive up to 3-4 days. However, some of the latest data shows that the coronavirus does not last very long on objects outdoors because of the exposure to sunlight. “In general, objects outside should have very little virus on them,” explains David Nieman, Dr.PH.
Ian Lipkin, director of the Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, has been studying the coronavirus. He says sunlight can help break down viruses that have been transmitted to surfaces. “UV light breaks down nucleic acid. It almost sterilizes [surfaces]. If you’re outside, it’s generally cleaner than inside simply because of that UV light,” he says. In fact, UV light is so effective at killing bacteria and viruses it’s often used in hospitals to sterilize equipment.
Despite this information, we urge you to use extreme caution when it comes to playground equipment and shared outdoor toys. There is always the potential for contamination on these items. And if you do use these items, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly as soon as possible after use.
The Outdoors and Your Mental Health
These are extremely unsettling, uncertain and isolating times. There is an unprecedented amount of stress, anxiety, and depression in connection with facing this virus. Not only are the effects of the coronavirus itself alarming, but social distancing can also affect your mental health.
Researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City have found that there are significant mental health benefits to be gained from participating in outdoor activities. Outdoor time resulted in reductions in stress and anxiety and an elevated mood after spending time in nature. The overall positive effects documented in these studies were often described using terms such as “psychological healing,” “increased sense of well-being,” and “restorative.”
Beyond the benefits of being outside that keep you healthier overall, time spent outside during the threat of disease or infection, such as with the coronavirus, is one of the safest things you can do to improve your physical and mental wellbeing.
The Hike it Baby 30 Challenge
The Hike it Baby 30 Challenge starts April 1st and encourages all families to spend more time outside. During this time when many communities are facing social limitations associated with the coronavirus, the Hike it Baby 30 Challenge can be done individually or with just your family. Outdoor time can be spent anywhere you feel comfortable, from your backyard to a park or hiking trail. Additionally, the Challenge Facebook group, where participants are sharing their adventures, photos, and motivating each other through comments and discussions, gives you community and connection in a virtual setting.
About Hike it Baby
Hike it Baby is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to getting families outdoors and on trails across the U.S. and internationally, supporting, educating and inspiring families through their more than 300 communities across North America. Since its grassroots inception in 2013 in Portland, Oregon, Hike it Baby is now a growing community of 270,000 families and 500 volunteer branch ambassadors hosting more than 1,600 hikes per month. More information, as well as daily hike schedules, can be found at HikeitBaby.com, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram.
Photos Courtesy of Stephanie Jacobson.