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The key to improved mental health can be found outdoors

Outdoor space may be the solution to mental pollution.

(Photo by Gene Wickham/The Valley Star)

By Marcos Franco, News Editor

Although bundling up indoors is an easeful way to spend a rainy day or two, Americans should avoid tarrying indoors and spend more time in natural environments.

When going outside it is important to follow physical distancing guidelines, however, the CDC lists outdoor recreation as safe activity for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Our homes offer a sense of security. A place to take a load off and unwind after a long day at the office. However, for most Americans who had to transform their bedroom into a cubicle last year, time indoors may be doing more harm than good.

Americans spend 90 percent of their lives indoors according to the EPA, a number equivalent to more than seven decades inside for the average person. In the United States, life expectancy is 79 years, leaving the average person with less than eight years spent outside of a building.

"Light, noise, sound and different circumstances are all things that help us grow," said psychotherapist Laura Dabney in a statement to health and wellness site Livestrong. “Limit life to the confines of your four walls, and those kinds of healthy stimulation can easily fade away — not to mention set the stage for some unhealthy habits.”

Direct sunlight is an essential component to a healthy lifestyle but is easy to miss when stuck inside. Not only does sunshine provide vitamin D — a nutrient that 42 percent of Americans are deficient in — but they also regulate the body’s circadian clock. The “clock” is an internal 24-hour cycle that is calibrated each day by sunlight and is responsible for regulating sleep, hormones, body temperature and digestion. The rhythm is typically thrown off when traveling between time zones, commonly referred to at jet lag. When isolated from the outdoor world, circadian imbalances can cause people to feel fatigued, which can be counterintuitive when the modern world demands people to be productive from home. A separation from the natural world around us can lead to mental health and sleep disturbances.

PubMed Central, an archive of biomedical and life sciences journals at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, found a correlation between consistent home-staying and poor mental health. The study followed 2,392 individuals during the stay-at-home order, with no prior history of mental illness. After the mandated order, 60 percent of participants experienced depression, 53 percent experienced sleep disturbance and 76 percent had circadian disorders.

Spending time in natural environments refocuses the mind and alleviates mental burdens, which is why it is so important to develop an intimate relationship with mother nature.

According to a study by Stanford University, spending time in nature reduces activity to the region of the brain associated with depression. Researchers found that neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for behavioral and emotional regulation — was reduced after a short stroll in nature.

“This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better,” said lead author Gregory Bratman, a graduate student in the Stanford Psychophysiology Lab and the Center for Conservation Biology.

Although time spent outdoors is scientifically proven to boost mental health, many people do not take advantage of the cost-free therapeutic benefits.

A 2019 study by the Outdoor Foundation found that nearly half of the U.S. population does not participate in outdoor recreational activities, and less than 20 percent got out at least once a week. Within the last year, people have become stuck in the routine of working from home or remote learning, making it easy to forget about the world beyond four walls.

Walking a short lap around the neighborhood to soak up sun can stimulate both the body and mind, promoting vitality and mental well-being. Valley College is a great spot for outdoor activities to match the interest of anyone. The local arboretum has since become a recreation area since the distance-learning period where community members come to exercise or just to spend time outside. With wide-open green fields and running paths along the side of the school, the campus hosts joggers, dog-walkers, skaters and picnickers on a regular basis.

The benefits of the outdoors can be experienced with less than 20 minutes a day. Just two hours a week spent in nature has been proven to reduce anxiety and boost morale.

Taking a small portion of the day to get outside — even if it is not spent exercising — can go a long way in advancing mental and overall well-being, which is why it should be a crucial part of everyday life.

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