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Why You Should Add Getting Outdoors to Your Pandemic To-Do List

May 12, 2020outside

As summer quickly approaches, and we find ourselves with more and more free time, in part to stay-at-home orders, enjoying time outdoors can be one of the best pastimes to pick up. By embracing nature, experts agree that you can greatly improve both your physical and mental health.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have some concerns about what exactly is safe to do outside. Dr. Vishal Phakey, Family Medicine Physician, explains that there are still safe ways to go for a walk or run, play with the kids, or simply take in some fresh air and scenery – all of which can increase your physical activity, vitamin D absorption, and reduce stress.

Exercising, playing, or gardening in one’s own yard is often the safest bet; however, you can still venture out to local parks – as long as they remain open – or around your neighborhood. If you’re leaving your yard, the two most important things to remember, according to Dr. Phakey, are: social-distance and bring a mask.

“If somebody is walking toward you, do your best to move to the other side of the street or path, to keep that six-foot distance,” explained Dr. Phakey, of Voorhees Primary & Specialty Care. “You should also always keep your mask on hand; however, if nobody is around, then you don’t have to wear it.”

It can also help to avoid peak times; if you know when your local park or neighborhood is usually most crowded – which is often mid-morning and early afternoon – you should plan to go at a different time.

Increasing your physical activity – whether it is moderately from yard work, or vigorously from a workout routine – can help you lose weight and lower your BMI, blood pressure, and risk for type 2 diabetes, along with other chronic diseases, says Dr. Phakey. Additionally, it can improve your overall cardiovascular and respiratory health.

However, perhaps the most significant benefit to spending time outside is the increase in vitamin D absorption, which is linked not only to boosting energy, but also to improving bone density, the nervous system, and the immune system.

“Spending time outside two to three days a week has been shown to increase peoples’ white blood cell count by nearly 40 percent, which is instrumental in reducing inflammation and fighting off infection,” continued Dr. Phakey.

It’s recommended, for healthy vitamin D absorption, that people of all ages spend at least 20 minutes a day in the sun – weather permitting. However, if you plan to stay outside longer, Dr. Phakey reminds us to stay hydrated and apply sunscreen of SPF-30 or higher to prevent sunburn.

Aside from the physical advantages, being outside can also significantly decrease stress levels and help with anxiety and depression. If you’re like many people whose mental health has taken a toll

since the start of the pandemic, the ”great outdoors” may be the extra coping outlet you’ve been looking for.

“Studies show that spending time outside can decrease our cortisol levels,” said Dr. Phakey. “Cortisol, which is commonly known as the stress hormone, can be managed through exercise, meditation (or relaxation), and sleep. Additionally, the color green – of grass and trees -- can be emotionally stimulating and calming.”

Stress reduction can also help you sleep better at night, which, in turn, will also contribute to keeping your cortisol levels low, explains Dr. Phakey.

If you feel like you’re a shut-in, you’re bored, or feeling anxious, keep in mind that it is still safe to go outside and breathe in some fresh air. It can be a great way to clear your mind, get into shape, or pick up a new hobby, such as gardening. Just remember to take the proper precautions when crossing paths with people outside of your household.

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