The benefits of playing outdoors

NewYork-Presbyterian | May 19, 2023

Whether it’s a stroll down a city street or playing a tennis match, research shows that enjoying the outdoors benefits our mental and physical health. To celebrate the arrival of warmer weather, clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Evans, who established the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, shared why spending time outside is integral to a healthy lifestyle.


“I live in New York City, so I am familiar with the challenges of getting outdoors, including the inevitable noise, horns blasting, hustle and bustle of people rushing from one place to another,” says Dr. Evans, who is also a professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. “However, you don’t have to be outside long to experience the positive effects of natural light and a change in the environment. Try to take a few minutes each day in the fresh air.” 


Here Dr. Evans gives five benefits of spending time outdoors:


1. It encourages physical activity.


Being outside supports an active and healthy lifestyle, which is one of the best ways to improve your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical activity can help manage your weight, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and make your bones and muscles stronger.


If you haven’t exercised in a long time, Dr. Evans advises starting with what you enjoy—what better reason to find some court time? 


“I was a marathon runner, but now I try to get out most days for a walk,” she says. “For someone who was into high-intensity aerobics, I underrated walking. You don’t need an expensive gym membership or fancy equipment to go for a walk.”


2. It benefits your mood and mental health.


“I often ask patients to take their mood temperature— a measurement from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best mood—before and after taking a walk outside,” says Dr. Evans. “People are often surprised at how much their mood improves.”


Every time we step outside, we experience something new, whether it’s a new encounter or something we have never observed before. Research shows that new experiences activate the reward system in our brain, which elevates the brain chemical dopamine and improves creative thinking.


There is also an abundance of evidence that being outside enhances memory and cognition. For example, one recent study of nearly 62 million older adults found that those who lived near green space had lower rates of hospitalization for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia.


3. It lets you soak in vitamin D.


According to Dr. Evans, one of the best-known benefits to being outside is that it allows exposure to sunlight, which is a source of vitamin D.


Vitamin D is critical for the health of our bones, muscles, blood cells and immune system.


Be aware that over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is associated with skin cancers and cataracts, so it is important to take precautions, like wearing sunscreen.


4. It leads to better sleep.


Exposure to sunlight in the morning can help optimize sleep at night. Sunlight regulates the release of the hormone melatonin, which helps pace the body’s circadian rhythms. An early morning walk or bike ride has a double benefit for sleep because it sets a healthy body clock and boosts your exercise routine. If going outdoors is not possible in the morning, Dr. Evans says, being outside any time of day will still improve sleep.


5. It helps you form social connections.


Many of us spend our days inside, and this tendency has only grown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, social connections and a sense of belonging are vital to our health and well-being. Studies show that people who feel supported have lower rates of anxiety and depression, obesity and diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. We also know that relationships are important to healthy aging. Finding a doubles partner, signing up for a group lesson, or simply rallying with a friend offers a perfect opportunity to connect. Says Dr. Evans, "We know that connecting with others has enormous positive effects on our mental and physical health."



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