The Scientific Case for Escaping Your Office for an Hour a Day


The news: Summer is rapidly approaching, but many of us spend most of our time indoors. With work, obligations and hectic social lives, we can't always control where we choose to spend our time.

But there's solid evidence that trying to devote at least an hour a day to outdoor activities is good for your mental and physical health.

The research: A 2009 study by Dr. Jolanda Maas of the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that living near green spaces is associated with less anxiety and better mental and physical health. Maas analyzed 345,143 Dutch persons' medical records, finding that living within a one-kilometer radius of a green space was linked with a decreased risk of experiencing 15 out of 24 disease clusters. The relationship covered everything from cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal disorders but was strongest with anxiety and depression. And they determined that exercise couldn't explain the results, because people who lived in green areas actually tended to exercise less often.

Researchers from the University of Essex have found that as little as five minutes a day of green activity like walking, gardening, or cycling can improve mental health. Their survey that studied the results of 10 UK studies involving some 1,252 participants concluded that the body of research demonstrated "large benefits from short engagements in green exercise, and then diminishing but still positive returns" over time. "Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood; the presence of water generated greater effects," while young people and the mentally ill showed the biggest improvements.

University of Michigan researchers found that going outside for just an hour improved attention and memory performance spans by about 20%. City streets didn't do anything; it was the leafy green spaces in botanical gardens and arboretums that produced the generous brain boost.

Alternatives: If work is keeping you too busy to exercise or take breaks outdoors, you could try a standing desk. It might sound like a pain in the butt, but people who don't gain weight are up and walking around an average of 2.25 hours a day more than people who do. Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine says that "... what we've discovered is that once you're up, you do tend to move," perhaps making you a little more inclined to take in some nature throughout the day.

Meanwhile, hiking continues to be one of the healthiest activities a person can do, providing a powerful cardio workout, improving muscle strength and of course providing wonderful opportunities to access nature. So if you can't get outside every day, finding the time to take periodic trips outside the city can still be quite helpful.

Problems of access: While going outside and enjoying the environment sounds simple, there's actually a variety of obstacles disproportionately preventing the disabled, the poor and people who live in urban areas from gaining adequate access to green spaces. The well-off live in greener areas with better parks and greater resources to take trips. Others may not. 

Improving our ability to experience nature, then, is an important class issue that doesn't get appropriate attention. In practical terms, this means that designing cities to emphasize green spaces — such as improved accommodations for the disabled or bigger, safer parks in low-income areas — should be considered both a public health priority and providing an essential amenity.