The importance of being outside

As the spring flowers start to appear and the blossom forms on the trees, we can start to feel more enthusiastic that the mornings and evenings will be lighter and that the warmer weather is coming soon. Not only is spring a beautiful season but also a lovely time to spend more time outside. As well as making us feel so much better, being outside and in nature has many biological and physical benefits to wellbeing.

Daylight, whether through direct sunlight or through clouds, has so many beneficial effects on our physical and mental well being.

An early walk in daylight, blue sky or cloud will help your body’s internal clock reset and prepare you properly for the day. It’s no wonder daylight is a vital source of energy and when we experience direct contact it starts a cascade of biological responses including regulating our hormone balance, boosting immune function, helping us sleep and even protecting us against dementia. Even 15 minutes can have significant benefits.

Light is electromagnetic energy and moves in waves (photons) – long wave and shortwave. Our eyes and skin are the transmitter for sunlight, signalling to the body to synthesise this energy and activate various systems.

We have a very clever and sophisticated part of the brain (called the suprachiasmatic nucleus) which can be described as a room full of clocks that go off at different times throughout the day and night. These clocks signal the body to produce various hormones throughout the day, timed to precision to help us wake, function optimally through the day and sleep peacefully at night.

Daylight and night dark are two important clocks for our functioning. Our ancestors would have relied on the sunrise as a time to wake and sunset as a time for preparing to sleep and important biological processes would have been automatically signalled through this natural 24 hour cycle. With the advent of electric lights, television, computers and phones, we have disrupted this natural process. Of course, we would not want to be without our devices, but it is vital for optimal performance that we reset these clocks and try to replicate our ancestral body clock.

The good news is there are some easy, free and simple steps that we can take to help us to fall back into this natural biological process and one is to spend 20 to 30 minutes outdoors as early as you can, even on a cloudy day, as a great way to reset our body’s system.

As you would expect, combining daylight exposure with a morning walk is a double whammy as not only are you getting some valuable exercise under your belt but also the benefits of the daylight. I appreciate for those of us who work in offices this can be difficult. A practice that I have been trying is to make some of my calls while walking or suggesting to colleagues a walk round the block as a way of catching up rather than face to face sitting in a meeting room – not always possible but a way of getting outside while still being productive if we can.

For those that find it difficult to get outside or experience SAD (Seasonal Affective disorder), there is an alternative in Phototherapy, also known as Bright Light Therapy, which can be easily incorporated into your daily routine. Phototherapy involves using small, portable devices known as mood therapy lights, “happy lamps,” and light boxes, designed to  provide a dose of artificial sunlight. I have one on my desk which I bought from John Lewis which I have on in the winter months. But unlike sunlight, which contains many different wavelengths of light, mood therapy lights use fluorescent or LED lights to emit only a specific portion of the visible light spectrum like UVB light, unlike harmful UVA light – the reason behind sunburns and skin cancer. UVB boosts melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D production, among other positive hormones.

In an ideal world, of course, we wouldn’t need light therapy; everyone would be able to enjoy regular time in the daylight. But getting the recommended minimum amount of sunlight of 15 minutes three days a week is still a realistic goal and really important for health and wellbeing. For more information, please see my resources page where you will find a list of simple and quick wellness guides.

In Paradise of Walking – Shane O’Mara

Mark Hyman Longevity Road Map – Shining a light on Bright Light Therapy

Andrew Huberman – Using Light (sunshine, blue light & Red light to Optimise Health (18th April 2022)

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