TIME health

5 Reasons to Spend More Time Outside—Even When It’s Cold

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Mother Nature provides serious benefits to our bodies and minds—even when the temperatures drop

Studies show that a stroll outdoors can actually improve brain function and mental focus. Walking not only results in increased physical activity, it also promotes the free flow of ideas, according to Stanford University researchers.

Another study by psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas​ found that backpackers scored 50 percent higher on creativity tests after spending four full days in nature without any electronics. “Burying yourself in front of a computer 24/7 may have costs that can be remediated by taking a hike in nature,” co-author David Strayer said in a statement.

Research also suggests that time outside can improve focus. Children with ADHD are likely to score higher on concentration tests after time outdoors. Those children who strolled through a park saw a greater increase in focus than those who walked through a residential neighborhood or urban area.

It’s no secret that winter can bring on the blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the cause of reoccurring depression in 10 to 20 percent of women in the U.S. Symptoms of SAD can include anxiety, exhaustion, and overwhelming sadness. Researchers believe SAD is a result of shorter days in the winter, and the fact that there is less natural light. The cold can also keep even regular exercisers indoors, reducing their sun exposure. One quick and easy treatment for SAD: more time outside (even when it’s chilly or cloudy), according to the Mayo Clinic.

In addition to easing SAD symptoms, time spent in natural light gives our bodies a chance to soak up vital rays. Vitamin D helps ward off heart attacks, and may even improve conditions including osteoporosis and some types of cancer. Although we can obtain vitamin D from foods like salmon and cheese, we get 80 to 90 percent of it from the sun. But don’t forget to smear on some SPF if you’re going to be outside for longer than a few minutes. Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean the sun won’t damage your skin.

Working up the motivation to exercise outside is trickier when it’s windy, snowy, or just plain cold. But being outside gives runners a better workout, burns more calories for cyclists, and makes physical activity more enjoyable overall, according to The New York Times. That means enduring the elements to jog on a frosty day may actually help us relish our workouts.

“The number one best part of going outside during winter is the solitude and space,” says Sarah Knapp, founder of OutdoorFest, a New York-based organization that encourages city dwellers to go outdoors. “The trails are significantly less crowded, a layer of snow quiets the world down, and when the trees lose their leaves, views are more expansive.”

Natural light may hold healing powers, according to a study from the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers found that spinal surgery patients saw lower levels of both pain and stress after they were exposed to more natural sunlight. In fact, patients exposed to 46 percent more sunshine took 22 percent less pain medication per hour.

Another study, published in 2008 in the Journal of Aging Health, suggests that getting outside remains just as important as we age. Seventy-year-olds who spent time outdoors daily reported fewer bouts of pain and had less trouble sleeping. They also seemed to show less of a decline in day-to-day activities. In other words, the outdoors may help us stay healthy later in life.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

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TIME Wellbeing

Study Names Provo, Utah Most Feelgood City In America

Washington State v BYU
BYU fans cheer during a game against Washington State in 2012 in Provo, Utah. George Frey—Getty Images

A new Gallup survey of 189 American communities finds that people's overall well-being is generally higher in the Midwest and West—especially California, Colorado and Utah—but lower in the South. Hint: the top city is also one of the most religious

The secret to happiness might just be good, clean living.

Provo-Orem, Utah, ranked number one in the United States for overall wellbeing in a Gallup survey of 189 American cities released Tuesday. In the past, Gallup has also found that Provo is the most religious city in America—religiosity seems to correlate with higher levels of wellbeing in general—and that Utah has the lowest smoking rate among all 50 states. Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo., come in at the number two and three spots, and three of the top ten highest overall wellbeing communities in America are in California.

The place with the lowest level of wellbeing—a composite index of six metrics: life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and access to basic necessities—is the Ashland-Huntington area, where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia meet. The region has seen hard times as its economic fate has declined with the coal industry in recent years. Kentucky and West Virginia are also the two states with the highest smoking rates in the country.

Among metro areas of one million or more in the U.S., the San Francisco Bay and Washington, D.C. areas score highest in Gallup’s well-being index. Perhaps unsurprisingly, residents of these two regions also told Gallup they felt the most confident about the economic prospects of the U.S. in a recent poll. And it’s not just that Americans in D.C. and San Francisco are glass-half-full people—their glasses really are half full, or fuller, as residents of two of the wealthiest population centers in the country.

[Gallup]

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