It’s something we all experience, that sudden urge to just get up and go outside. Despite our natural inclination to go outdoors, most of us are doing the exact opposite and that’s bad news for our health and our mind.
This is something I am particularly guilty of, I spend days indoors only leaving to run errands, but never taking time to actually be outside and experience nature. I brush off the benefits of being outside by telling myself I’m healthy in other ways.
I wanted to understand why it is that we love nature so much and how I could do a better job of incorporating more of it into my day without feeling like I’m sacrificing my productivity.
Why we dislike being stuck indoors
When the weather is nice people are more prone to distraction as our cognition and ability to focus decreases. We spend more time thinking about our own priorities (like going outside) and less about work. This kind of absentmindedness (or cognitive interference) makes us more likely to make mistakes or commit errors that we wouldn’t otherwise make.
Although people are generally in a better mood on good weather days, this mood doesn’t always translate into increased productivity. The body has to work harder to maintain homeostasis so less resources are available to devote to paying attention or completing complex mental tasks. All of which lead to a decrease in productivity.
Why else do sunny days tend to cause us to lose focus? Our internal systems are naturally set-up to respond positively to the outdoors. Being outside gives us an opportunity to be idle. That idleness is not only good for our body but is super useful for our mind. The open space of the outdoors calms us—the green of nature is reassuring.
Here are a few other benefits of being outside:
- We feel more energized (thanks to the sunlight and vitamin D)
- Natural light helps to improve our mood
- Concentration is better after being outdoors
Theoretically speaking, going outside sounds great but by the end of the day, the only thing I want to do is go home and relax. So, how can we seamlessly introduce more outdoor time into our day?
Use your body’s energy schedule your day
We can churn out about 6 hours of productive work each day. By hour 9 we are approaching fatigue, and once we get into hours 10 and 12, we are at full exhaustion. There’s no need for this when the body is better set-up to function in cycles.
The body is set up to perform some tasks better at certain points in the day than others and this is largely dependent on what our internal systems are up to. We can use these systems as a guide to schedule our day.
There was this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal about the best times to perform certain tasks, like sending out e-mails or scheduling meetings. The article went on to say that as our body temperature increases, so too does our cognitive function.
“As body temperature starts to rise just before awakening in the morning and continues to increase through midday, working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve.”—WSJ
By about mid-afternoon most of us are in a slump. As our energy and concentration wains we tend to turn to food or coffee to revitalize us, but sunlight can do you one better. It reduces stress, depression, and revitalizes us in the way artificial supplements simply cannot.
As our lung function and eye-hand coordination peak at around 5:00 p.m. each day, this provides us with yet another golden opportunity to get outdoors.
A study published in the research journal Environmental Science and Technology, helps to illustrate just some of the benefits of exercising outdoors versus going to the gym:
- Greater energy and productivity, improved mental-well being
- Decrease in tension, anger, confusion, and depression
- More overall enjoyment of the activities and a decrease in the perceived effort needed to perform the exercise
Like your body, your workday should incorporate cycles. Schedule the meat of your work day in the morning—midday. This is when you will be the most productive and cognitively able to complete tasks.
You can use your natural energy slump as an implicit reminder that it is time to go outside. Going outside doesn’t only aid in our productivity, but it also helps us sleep better.
Sleep and Sunlight
When the weather is nice, I sometimes like to stay up really late. I trick myself into believing that’s how I can make the most of the day. I tell myself that a poor nights sleep here and there isn’t that big of a deal, but it is.
A night of poor rest gives us the same cognitive impairment as having a .10 blood alcohol level. Each of us has a natural wake-time. Our natural wake-time is what time you would normally wake up without the aid of an alarm clock.
Then there is the wake-time that is socially obligated by our work or personal obligations. Though we don’t think much of our use of alarm clocks, they can impact how well we are able to think. Sleep inertia is described as that period between when we wake up and being fully awake, it’s that feeling of grogginess that so many of us are accustomed to.
This grogginess can take up to 2 hours to wear off. Think of it, by that time, most of us are already at work. But we’re not really present or operating at our full capacity which means we have to work more to produce less (yuck).
How do we overcome our sleep inertia and get out sleep cycle back on track? For the winning points…the correct answer is? Going outside!
Sunlight helps reset our sleep cycle (aka your circadian rhythm). It encourages the body to produce melatonin, which not only tells us when to sleep, but also when to wake-up. If you think an hour of extra sleep per night won’t make a difference in your work day I give you exhibit A:
- Your genes function better: Over 500 genes to be exact. This translates into less inflammation, improved immune and stress system response.
- Better memory: Getting that extra bit of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in helps to form long term memories
- Increased athletic function: Sleep helps to solidify muscle memory, but this only happens during our seventh hour of sleep (this goes for our cognitive memory too)
Sleeping better helps us to be more productive, when we are more productive we can spend more time outside, which actually helps us to sleep better and be more productive. All of which contributes to an improved outlook on life, better health, and just a better quality of life overall.
I tend to view going outside as a frivolity, but it isn’t. It’s a vital component to leading a healthy, productive life. I’m not saying that you have to go full-on Henry David Thoreau and move to a cabin in the middle of the woods.
Just try incorporating 30-minutes of outdoor activity into our life each day. Use your natural energy cycle to help remind you when it is time to go outside. You’ll feel better, sleep better, and be in a better mood. It’s hard to beat that.