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Go Play Outside!

Spring has sprung — and a preponderance of scientific research says you can improve your health simply by heading outdoors

By Gary Drevitch

Although cool temperatures, and even the occasional snow day, lingered deep into April in some places, it's clear that spring 2013 has finally arrived across most of the country. While the majority of the non-ski instructors among us welcome the milder temperatures, a strengthening school of thought argues that the season arrives with significant responsibilities as well.
It's not so much that we should take advantage of the opportunity to go outside, these researchers and physicians maintain — our physical and mental health demand it. And if for some reason we're shut indoors, we owe it to ourselves to at least look at nature.
Consider the evidence:
Time outside calms us. In a recent study in Scotland, scientists strapped portable EEG monitors to three groups of healthy adults, to monitor electrical activity in their brains. They then sent the groups on a walk — one through a busy downtown district, one through a quiet historic neighborhood and one through a park. The latter group experienced the least "brain fatigue," the distracting arousal, frustration and stress that researchers say makes us less efficient at work and more forgetful in general. The group that went downtown experienced the most mental fatigue, lead researcher Jenny Roe told The New York Times. The researchers concluded that more workers should take a break each day to walk in a green space or simply turn away from their screens and look at the trees outside their office windows, if they can. "It is likely to have a restorative effect," Roe says.
We need sunlight for vitamin D. Americans have a chronic vitamin D deficiency, but the nutrient is essential for helping us absorb calcium and facilitate communication between the brain and the rest of the body. But the ability of our skin, liver and kidneys to produce vitamin D declines with age and low levels can affect our hunger signals and mood as well as the immune system. When spring arrives, our primary, natural source of vitamin D – sunlight – is effectively turned back on. Recent studies have found that between five and 30 minutes of daily exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays is sufficient to restore needed vitamin D levels.

(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Nutrients You Need Right Now)

Fresh air makes us happier. Mounting evidence shows that pursuing happiness is no luxury, but indeed ought to be one of our primary health priorities. Happily, there are few easier ways of achieving the mental and physical benefits of contentment than going outside. A 2010 analysis of existing research co-authored by Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at Britain's University of Essex, found that our first five minutes outdoors delivers the bulk of the boost in our spirits, but that a full day outside can deliver a major spike not only to measures of mood but to those of cognition as well.
(MORE: Why You Need to Pursue Happiness)

The sight of greenery promotes healing. Compelling studies show that just seeing nature has major benefits, especially for people who are ill or hospitalized. A landmark 1984 paper in the journal Science first indicated that patients whose hospital rooms had a view of gardens or trees recovered from gallbladder surgeries speedier than others. On average, such patients recovered a day faster, required fewer pain medications and had fewer post-surgical complications. The opportunity to spend some recovery time in gardens added to the effect, and even simulated window views of greenery produced some benefits. Continued research in this area has spurred an emphasis on greener landscape elements in hospital designs worldwide. 
It's an open-air pharmacy. A recent cover story in Outside magazine collected current research from around the world on the benefits of time outdoors, including indications that getting out of the house lowered blood pressure and even blood-sugar levels in diabetics; that phytoncides, the compounds emitted by greenery, decreased stress levels and increased production of virus-fighting immune cells; that relaxing outside reduced production of the stress hormone cortisol; that time spent in mere proximity to water significantly lifts people's moods; and that when sunlight hits our eyes, the optic nerve spurs the brain's pineal gland to increase production of serotonin, which cheers us up.

Whether you jog with your pet, toss a ball with your grandkids or take a book to the park, the prescription is clear: To maximize your health in the mild months ahead, you need to leave the couch and computer behind, bask in the sunlight and inhale some profoundly medicinal fresh air.

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health channels. Read More
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