Spending time outdoors and connecting with nature is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. As we move into the fall and winter months, staying connected to nature can help employees stay happy, healthy, fit – and even more productive.
With the inevitable cold temperatures and snow around the corner, this is an ideal time to make the most of the available sunlight and fresh air and to plan for when it becomes a bit more difficult to venture out.
Benefits of sunlight
Medical evidence shows that getting enough sunlight is key to mental health as well as to fighting disease. Seasonal Affective Disorder, a subtype of depression associated with not getting enough exposure to sunlight, can cause severe emotional and physical challenges, including feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, appetite and weight fluctuations, and sleep disruptions.
New Englanders are at much higher risk for SAD due to the higher latitude. One widely recognized study found that 10 percent of people living in New Hampshire suffer from SAD, while only 1.7 percent in Florida are affected.
How does sunlight help make us happier? Researchers have found that it boosts levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain and natural antidepressant.
A widely cited study published in “The Lancet” showed that in healthy subjects, serotonin levels were higher on brighter, sunnier days and lower on cloudier, more overcast days. Many of the most common pharmaceutical treatments for clinical depression work by boosting serotonin levels.
Beyond the mental health benefits, sunlight delivers another powerhouse disease-fighting benefit: Vitamin D. More than 40 percent of Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiencies, and those living in locations farther from the equator are at higher risk. Vitamin D has many proven disease-fighting health benefits, and being deficient can increase risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, some cancers, and even multiple sclerosis.
Outdoors beats indoors
Finding ways to get and stay active outdoors can help maximize nature’s benefits. Although it can be tough to step out the door, particularly when it’s very cold, getting outside of the gym can go beyond the physiological benefits by helping with motivation and endurance.
Studies show that people enjoy outside activity more than indoor activity. Those who participate in outdoor activity regularly score higher on psychological tests and report lower tension, stress and fatigue after exercising outdoors. They also exercise longer, on average, when activity is conducted outdoors.
Being outdoors can also have a meditative effect. Researchers have found that nature’s soundscape can help calm those with attention deficit disorder.
One recent study found that participants experienced a significant mood lift after being outdoors for just five minutes of light exercise.
Nature and the workplace
Being able to get outside at the right time of day becomes more of a challenge as the days get shorter in wintertime, particularly for employees working regular daytime hours. To help them more easily leverage the health and wellness benefits, consider encouraging employees to take a break during lunchtime for walks, or to take phone calls and hold meetings outdoors.
Staff can also be encouraged to form a committee that can help organize group exercise programs that incorporate outdoor activity – such as training for an upcoming 5K or a virtual walking challenge. MIIA often works with member municipalities to deliver these types of health and fitness programs.
Incorporating nature into the indoor work space can also help. Terry Cline, a space behavior architect and consultant with the green design company DwellRight, notes that sitting in a room with views of the natural world has been proven to lower blood pressure and stress levels among employees. Natural day lighting is also proven to help people sleep better and be more productive during the day. Fluorescent lighting is economical, but incandescent lighting adds friendlier, more natural tones to the workspace – in effect bringing nature indoors, Cline said.
Cline also recommends using natural materials for indoor design whenever possible, painting with colors that are warmer and more connected with nature (versus stark white), and installing indoor plants – either real or silk. When a real window isn’t possible, create a virtual one by installing artwork that showcases nature and features a strong horizon line right at eye level, such as a photo or painting with an ocean scene with a visible horizon line where it meets the sky.
“Sitting and looking at a computer all day is unhealthy,” Cline said. “Relieving eye and body stress with the long views out a window or at a virtual window and taking outdoor breaks goes a long way in improving one’s work productivity and general sense of wellbeing and connectedness to nature.”
MIIA’s wellness focus
MIIA will be hosting booths at the MMA Annual Meeting on Jan. 22 and 23 focusing on health and wellness – and the benefits of getting outdoors. Experts will be on hand to show how outside activity can boost happiness, wellbeing, adventure, sense of accomplishment, and comraderie among emploees, as well as how to bring elements of nature indoors when it’s tougher to get out.
Wendy Gammons is the Wellness Coordinator for MIIA’s Health Benefits Trust.