I have always loved the outdoors. In college, I chose to major in Geology because the number of outdoor classes exceeded those offered in the Biology Department. I pursued a master's degree in Environmental Studies focusing on field studies of wetlands. I began my career hiking through Hawaiian rainforests studying rare plants, slogging through estuaries of California, and bushwhacking through midwestern ecological restoration sites. Like many natural health practitioners, I found my way to natural health through my own health crisis. Learning about the connection between lifestyle and health in my late twenties forced me to re-examine my job which involved frequent overnight travel and time on the road. It was with regret for the loss outside time that I closed the chapter of my life working "in the field" and pursued an indoor career serving people as a holistic nutritionist and naturopath. I returned to school to become a naturopath, interned at a clinic, and then opened my own practice. My focus turned inward towards the connection between natural foods and health.
Fifteen years later, the nature-loving part of me is still here. My interest was piqued when I came across the 1000 hours project on the internet. 1000 Hours Outside is a global movement designed to support children (and adults) in spending more time outside. People track a lot of things these days - steps, calories, budgets. Why not track something so critical to health and happiness? The 1000 Hours Outside project supports people with charts to track time outside (you can track different levels like 500 or 750 in a year) as well as ideas for enjoying time outside in nature. I decided to set the bar a little high for myself and work towards 1000 hours for the year. I started counting in September of 2019.
Evidence demonstrating the link between time spent outside, particularly sun exposure, and health is clear: sunshine is good for us and is critical for longevity and immune health. As a professional who specializes in digestive health, I was interested to learn that researchers out of British Columbia found sunlight, particularly ultraviolet light, made people's gut biomes healthier (Frontiers in Microbiology in October 2019). In a study of all women, they found that increased light exposure changed the gut microbiota for the better, increasing the number of different beneficial microbes found. They theorize that that sunlight has an anti-inflammatory effect and promotes a balanced immune response which in turn can make guts a better home for friendly microbes. Researchers claim this means that sunlight alone may potentially help with managing and preventing conditions like multiple sclerosis and irritable bowel disease.
Avoiding sun exposure has also been found to harm health. A study out of Sweden found that those who avoid sun are most likely to die at a younger age: “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy” (Lindqvist 2016). Additionally, there is a wealth of research demonstrating the numerous benefits of Vitamin D (which we make primarily from sun exposure) from sunlight on disease prevention. For example, nineteen of the top thirty causes of death in the US are correlated with a Vitamin D deficiency caused by lack of natural sunlight (Baggerly et al 2015).
Natural light in its full spectrum helps us make the hormone melatonin which can determine whether we are sick or healthy. Researchers at the University of Alabama state that melatonin protects mitochondrial DNA which in turn can reverse aging and turn disease processes on or off. This means the more time we spend in an environment of natural light, the more support we gain for healthy genetic expression. This controls not only the rate at which we age but whether we develop diseases. It boils down to this: you need plenty of sunlight to be healthy. If you value health, try to go outside more!
There are other benefits to being outside besides the sunlight. There is a natural electromagnetic grounding that occurs in the human body when in contact with natural terrain like soil and rocks. "Grounding", also called earthing, involves activities that “ground” or electrically reconnect you to the earth. Just standing barefoot in the grass, for example, will suffice. The air quality outside is also better: it contains more oxygen and more moisture than indoor air often does. There are numerous psychological benefits to being outside, also, especially in a scenic or park-like environment. My favorite benefit besides the sunlight, is how good it smells to be in a natural area with each plant type providing a unique aroma.
Recently, I completed my year of logging time spent outside. Since my goal was to complete one thousand hours outside for the year, that amounted to an average of 2.75 hours daily. At first, it was not too difficult to spend extra time outside in the fall days writing on my laptop, walking the dog, or walking to and from my kids' school. Tracking the hours encouraged me to tack on a few extra blocks to my walks and I averaged about 2.4 hours daily. Then, Wisconsin winter set in. While I still got two walks in daily with the dog, and the occasional stretch of hours spent shoveling, there were extended periods from late December-February with negligible time outside. My average plummeted to 1.1 hours daily. I was beginning to wonder where I would end up at the end of the year. As spring and summer rolled around, I began to spend more time outside. The pandemic hit and my kids were home. Intentionally taking time out in the afternoons to take the kids outdoors, my daily average of light climbed back up to the 2.4 hrs/daily again.
Seeing my deadline of September approaching, I started doing my daily stretch routine outside before taking my walk. I took phone calls with clients outside and performed webinars with the chorus of crows and barking dogs in the background. I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner outside. As a family, we were able to take three camping trips and that helped boost my average as I was outside around the clock. All of this resulted in completing 500 hours between June and September or over five hours daily! On September 12, I finished my year at 942 hours. I was able to finish my 1000 hours fourteen days later.
Although recording my hours occasionally felt like a chore, overall, it was worth it because it allowed me to make a few small lifestyle changes for the better. I can tell when I've been outside that I feel happier and am more relaxed, and that's worth a lot these days. I realize that not everyone can spend 1000 hours outside, but most people can make a small change, at least. If you find you spend minimal time outdoors and want to do more, try starting with a 15-minute daily walk, or five minutes of sitting outside for a screen break. The outdoors is a free health resource accessible to everyone.
1. Linqvist et al. 2016. Journal of Internal Medicine. Avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for major causes of death: a competing risk analysis of the Melanoma in Southern Sweden cohort.
2. Baggerly et al 2015. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for Public Health.