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The Mental Health Benefits of Getting Outside — and How to Make It a Priority

Originally posted in collaboration with StyleBlueprint.

No matter the season, whether in the heat and humidity of the summer or the cold blast that comes with winter, try and resist the temptation to retreat into your home. We spoke with the emotional wellness experts at Onsite,“There is a growing mountain of research supporting the outsized benefits of creating space in our often-over-extended lives to spend time outdoors,” says Megan Repass, Onsite’s Director of Equine and Adventure Therapy.

“Hundreds of quantitative and qualitative research studies support the absolute necessity of being outside for our overall health, yet our routines rarely take us outside for any significant amount of time,” says Megan. “In fact, it’s estimated that Americans spend 90% of their lives indoors.”

According to Megan, as little as two hours outside per week — 17 minutes a day — will help lower your blood pressure, cortisol levels, and pulse rates, reduce anxiety and negative thought patterns, and increase your creativity and overall satisfaction with life. “The good news for many of us is that research also shows that the time can be spent outdoors all at once or broken up into several shorter outings per week,” says Megan.

She also reminds us, “Being outside is different than being in nature. The challenge is to find more space to truly be in nature, an effort that requires our presence and willingness to take the time to become aware of our surroundings.”

And, for shade-seekers — incorporating the outdoors into your routine doesn’t have to mean more time in the sun. Consider sitting outside after the sun has set, and end your day by meditating or journaling. Or take your morning cup of coffee on the porch, allowing your body and mind to sync up and slow down before you rush into your day.

Here are a few suggestions for getting outside based on the time you have to spare:

If you have five minutes:

  • Step outside and do a five-minute breathing exercise.
  • Position your desk near a window so that you can take small breaks in your work day to look at nature.
  • Park farther away when you go to the store.
  • Roll your windows down while you drive.
  • Grow a plant — inside or outside.
  • Install a bird-feeder.

If you have 30 minutes:

  • If you usually walk with music, audiobooks, or podcasts, leave home without your phone and take in the sights and sounds around you.
  • Take your workout outside.
  • Go on a yard exploration with the children in your life.
  • Find a creek or river (any moving body of water), sit next to it, listen, and reflect on what you need to release.
  • Watch a sunset or sunrise.

If you have two hours:

  • Go to a park and read a book.
  • Have dinner in your backyard.
  • Make a list of all the surrounding trails within an hour of your home and set a goal of hiking them all.

If you have half a day:

  • Rent a kayak or paddleboard and get out on a nearby river.
  • Visit a botanical garden.
  • Plant a garden. (Bonus: There will be daily opportunities to tend the garden and return outside for short amounts of time!)
  • Join a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and visit the farm where your food is coming from.
  • Volunteer with a park system.

If you have a whole day:

  • Go to the beach or mountains.
  • Pack a picnic, games, books, and other activities and meet friends at a park.
  • Take a day trip to visit a nearby waterfall.

If you have a weekend:

Avoiding the outdoors when it’s hot is simply a habit for some, and changing habits can be challenging. Onsite’s Creative Marketing Director, Hannah Warren, offers the following advice:

“Our lives are the sum of our habits. How we spend our time, consciously and unconsciously, will determine the trajectory of our lives. But the problem for many of us is that it’s easy to start habits and really difficult to maintain them. When creating habits, we often start with lofty goals that quickly feel unattainable, leaving us frustrated and disappointed in ourselves,” says Hannah.

“Want to get in the habit of spending more time outdoors? Try creating an attainable goal of spending five minutes outside every morning while you drink your coffee instead of setting a goal of walking three miles a day in the summer heat. Too often, we overcomplicate our habits — we want grandiose, idealistic changes,” she explains. “We’ve found that small, incremental changes make the most significant difference over time. We call this the ‘two-degree’ shift. A two-degree shift — a small sustainable change — can alter the trajectory of your life.”

If you want to learn how to make and keep successful habits, sign up for early access to Onsite’s free course How to Hack Your Emotional Health, coming later this month.

Onsite’s programming also incorporates and prioritizes outdoor activities at their campuses in the rolling hills of Tennessee and the foothills of San Diego. “At Onsite, nature is one of our greatest teachers,” says Mickenzie Vought, Onsite’s Editorial and Community Director. “We believe healing is holistic, and part of that healing journey is disconnecting from the pace and setting of regular life, so you can reconnect to who you truly are. We often take therapy out of the group room and into the outdoors by gathering around the fire pit, conversing on the back porch, walking the trails, or connecting with animals.”

Spending time outdoors is important, but it’s only part of the big picture of wellness and healthy living. “Sometimes caring for our mental health looks like therapy, meditation, and medication. Other times it looks like getting outside, connecting with friends, and moving our bodies,” says Mickenzie.

“Find what helps you connect with the core of who you are. What’s worked for you in the past may not work for you right now,” she says.

“Slow down long enough to ask yourself what is supporting you in this season. Mental health is health. Physical health is health. Spiritual health is health. Relational health is health. How you take care of yourself should be holistic and whole because you are holistic and whole.”