By Diana Grysziewicz, Senior Therapist at Natchaug Joshua South East Center
Studies show that outdoor activity can have a wide range of benefits for young people, including providing a stimulating new context for learning, improving socialization skills, improving physical health, improving quality of sleep and strengthening motor skills. In addition to these benefits, recent studies have shown that time spent outdoors can provide an equal number of mental health benefits, such as reduced stress, positive mood changes, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As society has adapted to relying on technology throughout the pandemic, outdoor activities and engagement may be more important than ever – especially as COVID- 19 may have had a negative impact on how individuals participate in or access outdoor activities. For young people who have experienced prolonged pandemic-related stress, including transitioning from remote to in-person learning, spending 20-30 minutes outdoors has been shown to reduce the causative chemical from stress, cortisol, which occurs naturally in the body.
Outdoor exercise, in addition to sunlight, has been shown to lower blood pressure (a common symptom of stress) and increase endorphins, known as the “feel-good” chemicals produced by the nervous system. Both have been identified in recent studies as ways to reduce stress levels as we move into a post-pandemic society.
Spending time in nature can be an opportunity for our mind to rest from the stressors we face on a daily basis. Research has shown that natural sun exposure stimulates the pineal gland and increases serotonin, the neurotransmitter known to boost mood, in the brain. Increased serotonin levels have been associated with reduced depression and anxiety.
As spring approaches, look for ways to encourage youngsters to spend more time outdoors or incorporate outdoor activities if you are a professional currently caring for youngsters. Taking a short walk outside before dinner or making a phone call outside are easy ways to incorporate outdoor activities into your daily routine. Walking, biking and hiking are some of the ways young people can combine exercise and outdoor activities to improve their mental health. For professionals working with young people, many resources are available online including outdoor group games and team building exercises.