Renew’s happiness challenge: Rediscover the joy of nature

One of the keys to a sunnier outlook is waiting right outside your front door — and it’s within reach on Day 3 of the Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge

Leslie Goldman
Man closing eyes in nature

The Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge is the newest challenge from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. All week, we’re sharing fun and easy activities to help you strengthen your body, refresh your spirit and connect with the things you love. After all, when you make your own happiness a priority, it’s a win for your overall health.

 

Twenty-one hours. That’s how much time, on average, Americans spend indoors every day, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

No one’s knocking comfy chairs, air conditioning and the pull of a good TV show or game night with friends, but spending time outside is important for mental and physical health, according to a report from the Harvard Medical School. Simply put, our bodies need sunshine and fresh air.

“Spending so much time inside deprives your brain of daily doses of light,” says Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D., director of the University of California, Irvine Sleep and Cognition Lab. “This throws your internal rhythm out of whack because bright sunlight helps regulate your cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems, as well as your microbiome and sleep.”  

Mednick says this may have to do with the great outdoors’ ability to draw us in with its organic beauty, making us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. “Positive emotions like happiness and feelings of connection have anti-inflammatory effects on the body, which can protect against conditions ranging from heart disease to depression,” she explains.

3 ways spending time outside helps your overall health

A little sunlight and fresh air may be the easiest ways to help keep you feeling your best. Here’s why:

1. Sunlight helps lower stress and anxiety. It’s called a sunny disposition for a reason: Adequate sun exposure is linked with happier moods, and it may protect against depression, according to a study in PLOS One.

Plus, sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, which in turn boosts a feel-good hormone called serotonin, note researchers at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. This may be why seasonal affective disorder (a type of depression) typically strikes in the winter, when there’s less sunlight in general and people spend more time holed up indoors.

Just living close to a green space like a forest, park or grassy area is associated with reduced rates of stress and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a 2016 study published in Scientific Reports. Researchers found that 30 minutes of exposure to nature per week (long visits to green spaces, specifically) reduced depression by 7% and high blood pressure by 9%.

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2. Sunlight helps you sleep better, too. Early morning light kick-starts a hormonal switch-up designed to get you up and moving for the day, says Mednick. Melatonin, the hormone that causes drowsiness, shuts off for the day. In its place, a healthy amount of the energizing hormone cortisol starts to flow. Cortisol provides your body with energy, invigorates your metabolism and preps your brain for a busy day of thinking.

But the trick is to get enough sunlight — especially in the morning, says Mednick. “It’s good to throw open your curtains first thing in the morning, but it’s even better to get up and go outside,” she says. “Windows are made to filter out light, preventing the appropriate level of light intensity from reaching your brain. It’s the natural, unfiltered light that best regulates your circadian rhythms and helps you sleep well.”

3. Time outdoors boosts memory and focus. Spending just one hour interacting with nature helps improve attention span and memory by 20%, according to a 2018 study in Psychology Science. The temperature doesn’t matter. In the study, University of Michigan researchers saw the same effect on warm days as they did on cold ones. The study authors believe that outdoor time sparks focus-enhancing effects similar to meditating.

Today: Spend 20 to 30 minutes connecting with nature

This is the sweet spot for capturing nature’s stress-reducing powers, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology. It matches the findings of another study, published in Scientific Reports, that found that adults who spend at least 120 minutes a week in nature — or just under 20 minutes a day — reported consistently higher levels of good health and well-being, compared to those who spent little to no time outdoors.

You don’t have to go far to experience this noticeable drop in stress. Your backyard or a nearby park will do just fine. It also doesn’t matter what you choose to do — walk, garden, explore a nature trail — the goal is to interact with the natural world.

While you’re outside, put your senses to the test. Is there a tree, flower or sculpture that you can touch and take in the details? Or a bird or other critter that catches your attention?

Use the chart in the Day 3 section of the Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide to make note of what you see, hear and smell. You can download your copy here

Most of all, don’t forget to write down the good feelings that came from your mini escape. It’s this last step that will help you fully realize the benefits of this healthy new habit.

 


 

Keep up with the challenge:  

Download your Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide 

Day 1: Commit to Your Mental Well-Being   

Day 2: Silence Your Inner Critic