A warm bed and a Snooze button within easy reach. It would be very easy to give this morning’s walk a miss. But the dog needs a run, and I need to get up. Duvet pushed aside. Cold. Get dressed in the dark, stubbing a toe. Curse Winter, curse Weather, curse Work. Raincoat on, misery.
The dog stops dead on the threshold, looking out at the grey morning, dolefully embodying ‘do we have to?’ Yes, we do.
But now we’re out. The rain’s not so bad – less rain, more a mizzle. A mist that cloaks everything and paints everything in softer shades. There are birds by the songful, thrushes and starlings – a crowd of goldfinches. Take a breath to decant this moment.
I begin to feel less fractious and start to piece together all the reasons why I was such an idiot to want to stay in bed. Why I absolutely have to step outside and go for a wander every day.
The big reasons aren’t all that virtuous – nothing about getting fitter or extending life. The first is simple. Without his regular three walks a day, the dog would explode. The next two are more concerned with keeping myself in balance: if I feel I’m being overwhelmed by a problem, then a walk is a great way to work things out internally and see a way through; if I’m feeling disconnected, a walk is a way to reconnect with the world.
But then there are a host of others, and as I go on my way and gather reasons, pretty soon, I realise I have a list of well over twenty. By the time I’ve made it back to the house, I’ve settled on a shortlist – opting for some of the less obvious. So, here’s the list, partly inspired by an unlovely February morning – the Six Surprising Reasons Why It’s Good to Go Outdoors.
Going for a walk can make you more intelligent
It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest thinkers through the ages turned to the outdoors for inspiration – Aristotle was that fond of a turn around the colonnades, his School of Philosophy became known as the Peripatetic School.
More recently, we’ve begun to construct a scientific foundation to support what was previously folk knowledge. It seems time spent immersed in nature actually does assist mental acuity – not just in stimulating our thought process, but also in improving memory.
The University of Michigan ran an experiment to test the effect of walking in different environments on memory retention. A group of students were given a brief memory test, then half went for a walk in an arboretum and half went for a walk down a busy city street. After the walk, the whole group took the test again. The scores of those who’d walked among the trees improved significantly. The scores of the other group remained static.
In a similar study of more than 2,500 children in Spain, exposure to total surrounding greenness was associated with a 5 per cent increase in progress in working memory, a 6 per cent increase in progress in superior working memory and a 1 per cent reduction in inattentiveness.
It stops you going blind
Rates of myopia are increasing rapidly, particularly in countries where children spend more time on screens. A number of research papers have been issued to show that time spent outdoors is a critical factor. The reasons why are not well understood – it could be due to higher light levels outdoors, or the boost in Vitamin D that sunlight provides, alternatively it could be because when we are outdoors our point of focus tends to be on more distant objects, which has implications for ocular development.
It helps reduce crime
The idea of ‘eyes on the street’ as a crime prevention strategy can be traced back to the journalist Jane Jacobs, who put forward the idea in her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’. The idea is simple: crowded places will generate a ‘natural surveillance’, and the likelihood that a crime will be witnessed is a strong deterrent to any potential criminal.
By greening the streets – and building a culture of the urban outdoors we make cities safer to live in, just by virtue of the fact we feel inspired to go out for a walk.
The outdoors is less polluted than indoors, even in cities
When you live in a city, this may seem counter-intuitive, but according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, pollutants are two to five times—and sometimes more than 100 times—higher indoors than outdoors. Professor David King, a former government scientific adviser, has written that it’s healthier for children to walk to school, even along a city street, than go in the car – as the interior of a car effectively acts as a trap for noxious fumes.
This is one of the many reasons why we feel that schools and Local Authorities should work together to phase out the school run (see last week’s blog) – fewer cars on the streets at the beginning and the end of the school day will reduce congestion, and further reduce pollution – creating a virtuous cultural circle where it’s the norm for kids to walk to and from school.
There are untold health benefits
A walk a day keeps the doctor away! Being outdoors encourages us to be more active and makes us healthier – reducing obesity, and thus the likelihood of developing cardiovascular illness or Type 2 Diabetes. The gain can be pretty painless too. For example, children are likely to burn up just as many calories playing outdoors than when they take part in organised sporting activities.
But the positive effects of being outdoors go beyond that and help us to remain healthy in some quite unexpected ways. Just being in the outdoors can make you healthier. The current Forest Bathing fad is based on a number of empirical studies that indicate being around trees actually increases your T-cell count, and thus boosts your immune system.
Recently, there have been a number of stories in the media linking over-sterile home environments with the rise in child leukaemia. The research behind these stories didn’t make such a direct causal link, but did suggest that children who are genetically predisposed to some forms of cancer – such as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – are more likely to develop the disease if their immune systems are not given a significant workout in early life. Other studies have suggested that the rise in asthma is similarly linked to weak immunity. Playing in mud, scratching knees, being exposed to coughs and sneezes when playing with other kids: outdoor activities help children develop a robust immune system, remain healthy and resist life-altering conditions.
It saves polar bears
A 1999 study of 1,259 students from nine countries found that direct experience with nature was more likely to lead to pro-environmental behaviour than simply studying about nature from books. If you don’t think this is true – well, I dare you to take this up with David Attenborough, who says: ‘No-one will protect what they don’t care about and no-one will care about what they have never experienced.’
So, there you have it – park, street, mountain, moor or beach – all free, available to anyone, and the ultimate panacea for a clutch of 21stcentury ills. Why do we need to campaign to get more people outdoors? All people have to do is walk out their door, right?
Well, not quite. Unfortunately, people, and especially children are far less likely to go outdoors now than they once were. The World Health Organisation says fewer than 30% of children in the UK, in fact almost anywhere in the world, are getting the recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity. Low income children have nine times less access to green space than their wealthier peers and one study showed that 1 in 7 of London’s children never go to a green space (see Outdoor People’s Muddy Hands report)
There’s plenty we can do to help reverse the trend. We can make cities greener and design them for people rather than cars; we can make walking a social experience; we can encourage schools to get children learning outside, not just once in a while, but once or more a week. This is the kind of work we do at Outdoor People. And while can’t do anything about the weather – there will always be cold and grey February mornings – we’re doing all we can to make going outdoors easier.
Want to do something?
Think Global - support Nature For All!
Think London - get involved in London becoming a National Park City!
Think local - help us get kids outdoors
Or just go for a walk and tell everyone how it made you feel!
Photos courtesy Ehud Neuhaus.