With the arrival of colder, rainy and darker days, social networks are filled with images of cozy and warm-looking interiors: sofa, blanket, steaming tea, a movie or a book. Why go outside if it’s not absolutely necessary? Staying at home helps understand the number that keeps repeating itself when it comes to the spaces we spend our days in: we spend between 85% and 90% of our time indoors. That’s what the European Commission said in 2003 about the population of the EU, and also a study published in Nature in 2001, according to which Americans spent 87% of their time in closed buildings and 6% in closed vehicles.
The number of hours we spend between the four walls changes depending on the season: in summer we are outside more when we can and it is not sweltering hot, and in winter we tend to take refuge indoors, like a survey from the year 2017 resulted in 2021 from the company OnePoll, everything also depends on which is our favorite station. However, when we’re not working outdoors, it’s very likely that we’re indoors an average of 85-90% of the time. What are we missing if we can’t spend more time outside?
“Light is a synchronizer of the circadian system,” explains María José Martínez Madrid, Doctor of Medicine at the University of Murcia and coordinator of the Spanish Sleep Society (SES) Chronobiology Working Group. Good sleep hygiene recommendations usually focus on not getting too much light at night, but getting light exposure during the day is just as important. “They need at least two hours of natural light during the day, although it’s harder than it seems. But if no light is received during the day, then no melatonin is synthesized at night. It’s a mechanism that needs that contrast, daylight and darkness at night. If we don’t get light during the day, we become more sleepy and less active, and we sleep less well at night,” he points out.
Although artificial light keeps us awake at night, the light we receive during the day needs to be natural, if possible direct and not through a window. “When we receive light from the computer, even all day, it’s scarce. Even though it’s blue light, it’s a light that doesn’t have the intensity we need, nor does it have the full spectrum of light,” he clarifies.
Time spent outdoors is also linked to better visual health, about which there is quite a bit of scientific agreement as well. One of the most recent studies from this year concluded that while the intensity of indoor light has no effect on the development of myopia in children (the classic “reading in the dark will damage your vision” has enough of myths), the Time spent outdoors: Increasing this time protects non-myopic children from myopia. This study didn’t find the same result for children who were already myopic (that it slowed an increase in their myopia), but others did.
Ophthalmologist Rosario Gómez de Liaño, head of the strabismus unit at San Carlos Clinical Hospital, president of the International Society of Strabology and full professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, explains that these benefits of going abroad come in different ways. “You know, for example, that they are ultraviolet, which can have an impact through various mechanisms,” he emphasizes.
Eye care recommendations for computer work always recommend breaks during which you gaze into the distance, so it’s tempting to also attribute the eye benefits of being outdoors to the fact that we’re more likely to have eyes that look beyond a few inches. However, Gómez de Liaño insists that light is the most important thing. “You could see, for example, that it was completely different when the child read inside or outside. It wasn’t the playing and watching from afar, it was the light,” he emphasizes.
The importance of mental health
A few months ago, a video went viral on TikTok (and Instagram, by the way) of a girl walking down a snowy street in an exaggerated pout, to the rhythm of animated music and with the caption “Take a stupid walk for my stupid sanity.” Going for a walk, getting some fresh air is one of those tips that are often repeated like the hand of a saint when we are having a bad day.
“When we take to the streets, we realize that there is another world. And that makes us see that we don’t feel as good indoors as we might feel if we were more outdoors,” explains Juan Ignacio Aragonés, professor of social psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid and member of the Association of Environmental Psychology Psicamb . In addition, there are more opportunities for social interaction, which can also increase well-being. However, he clarifies that he is not saying it with data in hand, but out of “common sense”.
The data proves him right. According to a study published last year in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the average time the more than 400,000 British participants spent a day abroad was two and a half hours. Each additional hour was associated with a lower likelihood of depression and antidepressant use, lower frequency of anhedonia and low mood, less neuroticism, and greater self-perceived happiness.
While all of this can also mean getting out more because it makes you feel better, not the other way around, people have been looking for reasons to show that taking that stupid walk can help our stupid mental health. The various investigations have focused on three. First of all, natural light, which regulates the cycles of melatonin, serotonin and cortisol, among other things. Changes in these circadian cycles are linked to depression, so regulating one might help keep the other in check.
There’s also a link between the time we spend outside and physical activity: we tend to be more active outside the home (even if it’s a walk), which also helps us feel better. Finally, the positive effects of spending time in natural spaces are well studied: according to a 2019 study, spending two hours a week in natural spaces is linked to better health and greater overall well-being. If our way out is through a park or a trip into the woods, the benefits are greater.
But what if that time is spent outdoors in an urban, polluted, and ultimately stressful environment? A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2016 criticizes this: “The results of the study support the idea that increased spending time outdoors can lead to psychological benefits. However, this study questions whether this benefit is equally experienced by different groups, particularly given the differences in professional experiences and environmental characteristics of neighborhoods.
In the same direction, Dr. Rosario Gómez de Liaño on recent research linking pollution to an increase in myopia. These are, he points out, aspects that are still being studied even now, and “not all studies or all journals are the same,” so some of these things “will stay and some won’t,” but it’s something that’s also being addressed must be taken into account.
In other words, taking to the streets in a semi-pedestrianized area with parks and green spaces is not the same as walking in an area occupied by traffic and asphalt. When the environment is friendly, the health benefits are multiplied.
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