Get Out

The Health Benefits of Spending Time Outside

Trade in the cabin fever and nonstop panic for some sunshine.

By Gwendolyn Knapp May 1, 2020 Published in the May 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

WE DID NOT HAVE “PANDEMIC” ON OUR 2020 DISASTER BINGO CARD, and yet here we are. We’re long past the point of feeling rage about our canceled 10Ks and spin classes and gym memberships. We’re past disbelief (kind of, okay, not really). We’ve been cooped up inside. And beyond Netflix and a Southold Farm + Cellar wine club membership and Cheetos puffs, the only thing really keeping us together? Our daily retreat outdoors.

And we’re not alone. We’ve seen you out there, too, Houston, across the path also looking totally freaked. Hi. Hello. We’re in this together, but please stay six feet away.

Most of us are well aware that nature is good for our health. There’s hundreds of studies that prove as much, but maybe none greater than our own primordial urge to head out there when our lives are completely forced indoors. Being in nature reduces stress and boosts the immune system, and right now we’re in desperate need of both.

In fact, says Roma Bhatt, the director of therapy services at Legacy Community Health, “We need to do more of it—going outside—than we normally do, to counteract cabin fever.”

Bhatt points to a 2015 study on how nature can even halt our body’s own “fight or flight” mechanism, instead activating the body’s parasympathetic system, which puts us in a “rest and digest” mode in minutes flat. Plus, the active ingredients our bodies get from the outdoors, from microbial organic compounds that lower blood pressure to good, old-fashioned Vitamin D, are like taking a multivitamin. “It gives us nutrients we need to fight off illness,” she says.

But look, this isn’t like the good old days—alas, mere weeks ago—when you could simply head to the park to pick up a game of volleyball with your friends, or take out a B-Cycle without wiping it down with disinfectant while wearing five pairs of gloves and saying a small prayer. “Now we have to think a little more critically when we step outside our home,” Bhatt says, especially because of the ever-fluid regulations and recommendations our government officials can change at any minute to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It’s safe to get outdoors and do your thing in your backyard or take a walk around the block, but before you head out to exercise in the park, listen to experts such as Vijay Jotwani, a sports medicine specialist at Houston Methodist, about how to take precautions while exercising outdoors. His suggestions?

Steer clear of other hikers, runners, and bikers—“six feet is the recommended distance,” he says, so make space your top priority. Wash your hands before and after heading to the park, and if you have to make a pit stop, bust out that hand sanitizer before entering the restroom—assuming it’s open; check ahead—and after washing your hands and exiting. “There’s also guidance to avoid water fountains,” he says, so do bring a water bottle.

Our own suggestion? Memorial and Hermann Park get way too packed around sunset and anytime on the weekends, so hit them up in the early morning on weekdays instead. In fact, it’s a good idea to consider the time of day when you head outside anywhere in Houston. Also, absolutely do not feel bad about wearing that fanny pack with your Purell, mini-size homemade disinfectant spray, and sunscreen inside. Nobody is above cosplaying an “overly prepared circa-1994 Mom at Disney World” anymore, so go ahead and invest in those bike shorts and a scrunchie, too, if it lifts your spirits.

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