Mrs. Hestilow was a terrific math teacher in elementary school, but what I remember most about her was that she was open—every once in a while—to accede to her students’ pleas to hold class outside. Of course, as soon as we got a taste of this, Mrs. Hestilow began to receive the request regularly and had to refuse, pointing out quite rightly and reasonably that whenever we went outdoors we’d get distracted from her lessons. And she was right, of course. As soon as we were outdoors, our attention would quickly be drawn to a lost dog, a scurrying squirrel, or an interesting cloud, and away from arithmetic. On one occasion, I think a few of my classmates even stole away to join another class enjoying their scheduled recess hour, slyly mixing into their Red Rover and Hide and Seek games over on the nearby playground.
While going outside may not work for an elementary school math class, as kids we weren’t all wrong—going outside is important. It’s good for us. In fact, whether we’re kids or adults, we all need to spend some time outdoors. We all need a little recess.
First of all, there’s vitamin D out there. It’s what our immune system needs. Sunlight plusses our serotonin levels, which increases our energy, as well. In addition, studies indicate that indoor air pollutants typically accrue in higher doses than outdoor concentrations, so going outside is good for our respiratory systems too.1 Likewise, we tend to engage in more physical exertion outside, which helps us stay at a healthier weight. Most of us relax more outside, effectively pushing our cortisol levels downward and lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.
Emotionally, going outdoors is good for us too. A little fresh air has a mysterious way of boosting creativity and our problem-solving abilities, prodding our brains along into new thought patterns. Activities like walking, biking, and gardening tend to reduce our anxiety, and often lead to the bonus benefit of connecting us with others, which also elevates our sense of well-being. Finally, exposure to natural light—especially early in the morning—helps to regulate our sleep and can even help to ease depression symptoms in some.2
Spending more time outside is also said to help develop and protect our vision. A recent study involving over 10,000 kids, ages of 9–11, showed that those who spent more recess time outside were 22% less likely to develop near-sightedness than their peers.3 Scientists theorize that when we’re outdoors, our eyes have to focus and refocus between distances more frequently, and this is what does the trick.
Then there’s this: Peter Attia, a Stanford and Johns Hopkins-trained doctor, hosts a popular health and medicine podcast called The Drive. He’s also the author of a New York Times bestseller called, Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity. In a recent interview, when asked what advice he had for all of us in the coming year, Dr. Attia said, “Especially this year, where—let’s be honest— everyone’s going to be sucked into this vortex of world news, world affairs, and politics…(my advice) is to be more disciplined about taking a vacation from media, social media, electronics—and to substitute that out with more time outdoors…There’s no better substitution than time outside.”4 He’s telling us that the answer to the trap of getting stuck in our own heads, as we’re prone to do from time to time, might just be a few feet away—right through the nearest door that leads outside.
Then, of course, there are spiritual benefits to the great outdoors. Gazing upward into the vault of heaven at night reliably leaves us awestruck. It’s somehow easy to forget how astonishingly God has filled and fitted out the night sky. With the stars set in their courses, God is beckoning to us, seeking to distract us from our short-sightedness, from our immersion in ourselves, and from the transitory headlines of the day. Perhaps if we listened to this invitation a little bit more each evening, each morning, each day, we might hear God’s voice calling to us, calling to us in a new way—“Come out, come out wherever you are.”
God—Thank you for all that’s outside. Distract me away from myself and towards all that’s out there. Toward You. Amen.
1 Swaim, Emily, May 28, 2022, 8 Health Benefits of Getting Back to Nature and Spending Time Outside, www.healthline.com, https://www.healthline.com/health/health-benefits-of-being-outdoors#better-breathing
3 Ibid. See also, Protective behaviours of near work and time outdoors in myopia prevalence and progression in myopic children: a 2-year prospective population study, British Journal of Opthamolgy, 2020 Jul;104(7):956-961, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31615762/
4 Weiss, Bari, host of Honestly podcast “What to Expect in 2024”, Dr. Peter Attia, guest, 4 Jan. 2024