That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.
After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.
Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.
An indoor species
It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.
If you’re thinking that this only applies to pasty-faced office workers, then I should point you in the direction of a two-year study that followed the daily acitivities of more than nine thousand randomly selected people in the United States. The study participants reported spending 93 percent of their time inside either enclosed buildings or enclosed vehicles.
It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:
We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total.
~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)
A pandemic-shaped mirror
What’s fascinating is that we don’t realise what we have become. A 2018 survey of 16,000 people across North America and Europe found that fewer than one in five of us can believe we spend so much time indoors. But we do—and no more so than now, during this thing that’s happening.
One study, published last August in the Journal of Urban Ecology, found that the pandemic has reduced the usual recreational activities of ‘outdoor enthusiasts’—particularly those living in urban areas. I can certainly vouch for that! But what about the rest of humanity?
By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.
Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.
Lockdown is nothing like a free pass to go and play outside, however: a survey of 604 people in post-lockdown Ireland reported that, on average, participants spent only 8 percent of their time in the great outdoors.
It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.
What has the outdoors ever done for us?
A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.
Because of these stress-busting effects, merely living in a greener neighbourhood makes you live a longer, healthier life—no matter what your socioeconomic status—and reduces the risk of preterm birth, type II diabetes, asthma, stroke and, er, ‘all-cause mortality’. That’s amazing.
As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:
If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.
Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.
But the miracles of nature don’t end there. The natural world can also make you feel more generous, more grateful and less selfish. Exercise in the outdoors can increase your creativity (both divergent and convergent, since you ask), your memory and your attention, as well as protect against cognitive decline as you age. Wordsworth was a neuroscientist when he wrote:
Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
~ From The Tables Turned (1798)
In Toronto, researchers discovered that living in a neighbourhood with just ten extra trees made people feel as good as if they were given $10,000 or magically made seven years younger. Spending time outdoors can even roll back the effects of myopia in school children.
In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:
There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.
‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’
A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.
It’s certainly not a fair way to compare the lived experience during the pandemic of the wealthy billionaires who saw their assets increase by more than a quarter last summer and, shall we say, the ‘unwealthy’ immigrants unable to work during lockdown who are being discouraged from accessing welfare support and threatened with punishments by the Home Office if they do.
Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.
In the UK, nearly 34 percent of the wealthiest citizens live in the greenest and most pleasant of our land. The comparible figure for the country’s poorest citizens is less than 4 percent. Access to green space is directly correlated to wealth, amplifying the evils of health inequality, at a time when people can’t travel outside their local area.
Not the same boat.
Comfort from 226 CE
Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.
In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.
As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.
I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:
It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly!
~ Yu Huan, Weilue