The power of the great outdoors

Being outdoors in wide open green spaces has many benefits. Forests, beaches, moorland, fields, and hills. The North York Moors certainly have their fair share of beauty, and as Aristotle put it, “In all things of nature there is something marvellous”.

As a doctor, I strongly believe that being outside is good for your health. This isn’t just something I know from personal experience, but also because the scientific evidence tells us so. Hippocrates once said that “walking is a man’s best medicine”, and there is actually an abundance of research to support his claim.

Working inside a hospital, particularly with long on-calls and night shifts, I’m often left feeling drained and unfocussed. Going outside after a stretch of night shifts resets my body clock and restores me for the week ahead. A stressful shift can cause me to feel low, but I know that as soon as I step into a natural green space, I can again rebuild a sound outlook on life.

In this blog, we will look at four key reasons, with their researched basis, why being outdoors has benefits for your physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

"Walking is a man’s best medicine"

- Hippocrates

Change of scenery

Wellbeing is often simplified to how healthy and happy people are, however it’s a much more complex interaction of many elements and one must take into account all of the holistic factors that make up each unique individual.

One of the things that contributes to positive wellbeing is a ‘restorative environment’. This is being present in a place which positively contributes to your experiences rather than one which uses up your mental resources.

An important feature of a restorative environment (such as the outdoors) is the experience of being away, in which a person feels a sense of escape from the stressful demands of daily life. In fact, studies have demonstrated improved performance on attention-demanding tasks following time spent in natural environments. 1

The hippocampus is a part of the brain involved in spatial navigation and memory formation and the striatum is another part, which is involved in processing reward. A study using MRI showed that these two parts of the brain were more synchronised in people who explored new places regularly, increasing feelings of well-being. 2

Green space

We live in a high-stimulation age where our senses are constantly bombarded by new information. I am not here to shun modern technologies or social media as a whole, however we must identify the burden they place on our busy minds. People exposed to urban environments are forced to use their attention to overcome the effects of constant stimulation, and this in turn over time induces cognitive fatigue.

On the other hand, time in the outdoors is seen to reduce the demand on executive-based attention, i.e. making decisions, completing tasks and meeting goals. Whilst these functions are important, there is a time and place for them, and to expect oneself to be constantly working their brain in this way is simply unrealistic. Being outside allows restoration of these depleted attentional resources, preparing your brain for the tasks that will later come your way. 3

A systematic review (where over 140 studies’ results were combined) showed increased greenspace was associated with decreased cortisol (a stress hormone) and well as reduced blood pressure and heart rate, which can be markers of acute stress. 4 This in turn reduces risk of long term health complications such as heart attacks and strokes 4.

Exposure to green spaces facilitates recovery from physiological stress, restoration of directed attention, and improvement of cognitive performance. This strengthens our mental resilience by dampening the body’s stress response, allowing mindfulness and supporting adaptive thinking styles 5. This may in turn increase feelings of calmness, contentment and gratitude.

The proximity someone has to green space has been also associated with less or dampened symptoms of depression and anxiety6.

“A systematic review (where over 140 studies’ results were combined) showed increased greenspace was associated with decreased cortisol (a stress hormone) and well as reduced blood pressure and heart rate"

Natural light

Time spent outdoors exposes you to natural light. There is a well-documented direct correlation between the severity of seasonal affective disorder (a type of depression during cooler months) and deprivation to natural light.7 As a result, we know getting outside in the darker months whilst it is light, is essential to better well-being.

Results of several studies suggest that natural light, particularly in the morning, can significantly improve health outcomes of low mood, or feeling on-edge.8 Therefore, getting out on short walk, run or bike ride to start your day can have a significant impact on your focus, mood and productivity as the day goes on, even if you spend the rest of that day indoors at a desk.

Furthermore, research has shown patients who are hospitalised with depression recover faster when they’re provided with a sunny hospital room. 9 We can see therefore that natural light is essential to for health, and we should be looking for ways to incorporate it daily, just like we do food and sleep.

Improved sleep

As you’ve likely heard before, exposure to natural light in the day improves your sleep at night. This is because it affects your circadian rhythm (your body’s clock), and natural light (i.e. from the sun, seeing blue sky/clouds, seeing light reflected from bodies of water) has a greater impact than man-made light sources (i.e. electric lights used indoors).10

The exercise you undertake whilst in the outdoors can massively improve your sleep. One study found that exercise training decreased NREM stage N1 sleep (very light sleep) and increased REM sleep (deep sleep).11 Exercise is also heavily linked to improved mental wellbeing, through accomplishing something, increasing self-esteem and releasing endorphins (feel good hormones) during exercise, which is also a natural painkiller.

Linking our mood with sleep, a randomised control trial (the best quality research method) tested the impact of regular exercise on sleep in adults with depression and found significant improvement in sleep duration and quality. 12

In addition, the exercise you undertake when outdoors can contribute to being a health body weight. Beyond the numerous well-known benefits of being a health weight, this is also linked to sleep, because multiple studies have found that being overweight or obese is associated with poorer sleep.13


This blog has explored just how wonderful the great outdoors is for our mental health. From reduced stress in open, green spaces, to restoring your brain’s resources. From setting your body’s clock to getting a good night’s sleep with a body full of endorphins.

The scientific evidence telling us to go outside is vast, and it continues to grow. I’m sure at least one of the facts in this has grabbed your attention and there is no time like the present to act.

So, if you’re looking to improve your mental well-being, get outside, and the North York Moors is a wonderful place to do it.

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  2. Heller, A.S., Shi, T.C., Ezie, C.E.C. et al. Association between real-world experiential diversity and positive affect relates to hippocampal–striatal functional connectivity. Nat Neurosci 23, 800–804
  3. Kaplan S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature - toward an integrative framework. J. Environ. Psychol. 15, 169–182. 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2
  4. Twohig-Bennett C and Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res. 2018 Oct; 166: 628–637
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  6. Beyer K. M. M., Kaltenbach A., Szabo A., Bogar S., Nieto F. J., Malecki K. M. (2014). Exposure to neighbourhood green space and mental health: Evidence from the survey of the health of Wisconsin. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 11, 3453–3472. 10.3390/ijerph110303453
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  8. Wallace-Guy GM, Kripke DF, Jean-Louis G, Langer RD, Elliott JA, Tuunainen A. Evening light exposure: implications for sleep and depression. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2002;50:738–9
  9. Beauchemin KM, Hays P. Sunny hospital rooms expedite recovery from severe and refractory depressions. J Affect Disord. 1996;40:49–51
  10. Blume C, Garbazza C, Spitschan M. Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie (Berl). 2019;23(3):147-156
  11. Mendelson M., Borowik A., Michallet A.-S., et al. Sleep quality, sleep duration and physical activity in obese adolescents: effects of exercise training. Pediatric Obesity. 2016;11(1):26–32
  12. Nalin A. Singh, Karen M. Clements, Maria A. Fiatarone, A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Effect of Exercise on Sleep, Sleep, Volume 20, Issue 2, February 1997, Pages 95–101
  13. Beccuti, Guglielmoa; Pannain, Silvana. Sleep and obesity, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care: July 2011 - Volume 14 - Issue 4 - p 402-412

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