We spend almost all day indoors. In fact, I can imagine that people won’t spend any more time outside than the time it takes to walk from the car to the front door at work/ at home. We are missing out on a important aspect of health by spending so much time cooped up like this.
Evolution of ‘indoors’
Buildings have been a part of our evolution, and our ancestors would have been seeking shelter in some form for long before they were even humans. These shelters would hardly have been anything like a house though. More permanent dwellings are thought to have sprung up around 10,000 years ago, when we moved away from a nomadic life, to a more agricultural one. Even then though, these dwellings would have been far from the air tight houses we have today, and much more time would have been spent outside farming and travelling etc in fresh air. These buildings would have been little more than a place to sleep and offer some protection from the elements. The air change in these shelters would have been pretty rapid due to the poor construction, and so the air would still be what we call ‘fresh’. It would have stayed this way until relatively recently, when double glazing was introduced, work moved into offices, and people got obsessed with getting buildings air tight. Don’t get me wrong, double glazing and well built houses are good – they keep us warm, save money, and use less of the limited natural resources we use to heat ourselves; but it has resulted in the air outside being called ‘fresh air‘, which means the air inside is ‘un-fresh air‘.
Indeed, the air indoors is un-fresh, and in your house it takes between 10 and 18 hours for the air to change1. We now spend most of our days breathing this stuffy, stale air; and so are missing out on the benefits of fresh air.
Health benefits of fresh air
In 2010 an interesting study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that simply being outside for 15 mins was enough to greatly improve mood and vitality2, and this was further improved by being amongst nature. Going for forest walks to improve health is not a new idea though, and in Japan these walks are called ‘Forest Bathing’, which has been shown to not only improve mood, but also boost the immune system by increasing the number of immune cells/ anti-cancer proteins3, and reducing stress by lowering the amount of cortisol in the blood4.
How much of these benefits are a result of the calming effects of plants and how much is from the actual air is definably debatable, and it is likely to be a combination of both. But when I suggest getting some more fresh air, that is what I mean. I don’t want you standing outside your front door staring at your watch, gulping in air whilst waiting for the 15mins to be up. I mean actually going outside and doing something.
The sun itself is another great reason to get out in fresh air. In contact with skin, sunlight produces the ever important vitamin D molecule, which is linked to reduced rates of cancer and heart disease, just to name a few of its benefits5. The sun light also helps to regulate melatonin production, which is a vital hormone in regulating your circadian rhythm – something which indoor lights simply cannot do. The circadian rhythm is an under valued biological mechanism which regulates a variety of functions in the body, least of all, when we feel tired, and disruption of the circadian rhythm has been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes6. The suns influence of the circadian rhythm could also help to explain why people who spent 15 mins outside reported improve mood and vitality.
There is even large amounts of anecdotal evidence saying that exposing your skin to fresh air makes it healthier7, 8. Whether this benefit is from the UV light killing bacteria on the skin, increased amounts of vitamin D, reduced stress levels, improved immunity, exercising or simply exposing the skin or fresh air I can’t say; but I don’t doubt that being outside in the fresh air will help make healthier skin.
Ideas to get more fresh air
So there are some clear benefits to getting outside, but what to do when you are outside?
Running – We regularly visit the health benefits of running, and its a great way to get some fresh air and exercise at the same time. Its easy to get into running, and offers benefits for everyone.
Walking/ hiking – These are a great way to get outside and enjoy the country. As already mentioned, being outside and amongst nature boosts mood and vitality more than just being outside, and there is some fantastic scenery out there to enjoy.
Cycling – Cycling is another great sport, and you can either go for the lightweight speedy road bikes, or go for the thrill seeking mountain biking. Its all good fun, good exercise, and gets you outside.
Gardening – Gardening is a therapeutic way to spend your time. Many people find it both relaxing and rewarding, and you could even get the added benefit of some organic veggies to show for your work.
Sunbathing – Yes, sunbathing is a great way to get some fresh air, get some much needed vitamin D and relax. Be careful though, and only expose yourself to so much sun. The benefits of the sun are all in the dosage, and too much sun can cause some serious radical damage, so practice moderation, and use some sun cream.
It’s these things the weekend is for!
Living lives between air tight houses to thermostatically controlled offices is not a natural way to live day-to-day, yet so many do. Our body requires to be out and about, in the fresh air, and there are a number of benefits to being outside. Getting in the fresh air improves mood, can reduce stress, improves the immune system, and helps normalise important biological functions. Perhaps all these benefits are not just from the air itself, but rather a combination of being outside, amongst nature and the air.
1. Mark Bowman. (unknown). Air Change Rates. Available: http://web.fscj.edu/Mark.Bowman/handouts/Air%20Change%20Rates.pdf. Last accessed 13/01/2015.
2. University of Rochester. (2010). Spending time in nature makes people feel more alive, study shows. Available: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100603172219.htm. Last accessed 13/01/2015.
3. Li Q. (2008). A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects. J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 22 (1), 45-55.
4. Park BJ. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med. 15 (1), 18-26.
5. M. Nathaniel Mead. (2008). Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health. Environment Health Perspect. 116 (4), A160-A167.
6. Mika Kivimäki. (2011). Shift Work as a Risk Factor for Future Type 2 Diabetes: Evidence, Mechanisms, Implications, and Future Research Directions. PLoS Medicine. 8 (12)
7. Evita Ochel. (2010). The Importance of Fresh Air . Available: http://www.evolvingwellness.com/essay/the-importance-of-fresh-air. Last accessed 13/01/2015.
8. Casey McCluskey. (2012). How to Heal Your Skin & Naturally Glow: Part II. Available: http://beautybible.com/the-beauty-bible/skin/foundations-of-good-skin/. Last accessed 13/01/2015.