You know that spending time outdoors is good for your physical and mental health—but, as it turns out, not getting enough time in the fresh air can negatively impact your wellbeing.
Outdoor gathering in garden
Credit: Getty Images

Getting outside is critical to your mental and physical wellbeing, says Dr. Allison Edwards, MD, the medical director of Sesame, the healthcare marketplace. "Just like your mom always told you, the sun gives you vitamin D—and your body needs that to stay well," Dr. Edwards says. "If you don't get outside enough, you may experience lower levels of vitamin D, which can lead to low bone density." But low vitamin D levels aren't the only possible consequences of not spending enough time outside. Read on to learn what else you can expect if you don't regularly engage with the great outdoors.

Your mental health might suffer.

Without ample time under the big blue sky, you might begin to feel down and antsy, says Dr. Edwards, adding that you may have more trouble falling (and staying) asleep at night. Upon waking, "you might feel tired, groggy, or have low energy," she says. "Sunlight and fresh air help us with all of these issues. Moreover, exposure to the outdoors and nature has been linked with improved mood and less anxiety."

You might offset your internal clock.

The human body has its own way of keeping time, which we call an internal clock. This is regulated by a 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm, which gives our bodies the cues it needs to process everything from digestion to melatonin production. "Melatonin takes its cues from the environment and light," says Dr. Mahmud Kara, MD, the creator of KaraMD. "When it's dark, the melatonin in your system starts to increase and signals the body that it is time to sleep. When it's light, it signals your body that it is time to wake up." Not engaging with the outdoors during light hours, then, blurs the line between day and night—which results in too-little melatonin production and less sleep.

You'll miss out on major health benefits.

Being outside offers several opportunities to keep your physical health in check, as well. "There are the obvious benefits of being outdoors which is usually also correlated with getting exercise. This has vast positive effects," Dr. Edwards says, noting that exercising in nature reduces symptoms of depression, too. "Of course, you want to [get] a healthy amount of sun exposure, [while making sure] you are taking steps to protect against the detrimental effects of sunlight, which can lead to skin cancer." All to say, don't forget your sunscreen.

You can't replicate the benefits of the sun.

Missing out on your daily dose of sunshine has several deleterious impacts—including offsetting your body's circadian rhythms and melatonin levels—and it's also difficult to replace one-to-one, says Dr. Kara. Ultimately, there's no supplement for those sun rays: "Vitamin D can be found in certain foods, but exposure to sunshine is one of the greatest sources," she says.

How much time outside is enough?

If you want to avoid any of these consequences, Dr. Edwards says you should spend as much time in nature as possible. "I recommend that my patients get at least 30 minutes of some sort of movement a day—and it's an added bonus if they can get this movement outside, like in the form of a walk," she says.


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