Shelter is a basic human need. But staying indoors all day may fuel anxiety, insomnia and that too-familiar sense that humans just aren’t meant to spend the whole day inside.
You miss a lot when you surround yourself with walls, and sunlight tops the list. Exposure to sun-strength rays helps calibrate your body’s circadian “clock”, which regulates everything from appetite and sleep schedules to mood and energy levels, says Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at University of Colorado, Boulder.
Wright’s research has shown electric lighting and an absence of natural light can throw off your internal rhythms. He says jet lag and an erratic sleep-wake schedule (the kind shift workers endure) also disrupt your circadian clock. Research has linked working nights to impaired health and wellbeing, increased risk for obesity, diabetes, substance abuse, depression and other diseases, Wright says.
The solution is to get outdoors, ideally for at least 45 minutes in the morning. This helps knock your body out of sleep mode, Wright says. Your system absorbs natural light through your retinas, so you can wear clothing and sunscreen to protect your skin from damage. Sunglasses are also just fine. “You’ll still get plenty of light just being outdoors,” Wright explains.
Sunlight aside, a series of experiments from the University of Rochester found spending time outside in green, natural environments can boost your vitality—a feeling of physical and mental energy—by nearly 40%. Spending time indoors has the opposite effect.
“Green nature” in particular—forests and parks, as opposed to beaches or deserts—seems to provide the most benefit, says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology and first author of the Rochester study. More research has linked time spent in nature to improved mood and mental health, reduced sensations of pain and milder symptoms of attention-related disorders among kids.
Like meditation and other practices that promote mindfulness, spending time outside and in nature seems to relax and heighten your focus while simultaneously clearing your mind’s workload, Ryan says. A walk in the woods also fosters a sense of “relatedness” or connection with the living world, he says.
Think of nature as the counterpoise to the scatteredness of your attention when you’re swiping and clicking through different work, entertainment and social sites. These “media multitasking” behaviors have been linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression—both of which time spent outdoors seems to combat.
Fortunately, you don’t have to spend all of your time outside to give your brain and body what it needs to feel good. While more is better, just 20 minutes a day spent in green spaces has an “enhancing effect” on vitality, Ryan says, as long as you leave your smartphone behind. If that’s not possible, packing your place with plants or just looking at photos of nature can chill you out, he says.
Modern life involves cramming yourself into a series of boxes, from those with walls or wheels to those with keyboards or queues. Freeing both your body and mind from those constraints, even for a small slice of your day, may do you a lot of good.