Wellness in the Great Outdoors



The great outdoors has always represented a wealth of health benefits, both physical and mental. But now, more than ever, getting outside and breathing in fresh air has the added benefit of being “the best place to be” to reduce the risk of contracting/transmitting COVID-19.


Research is pointing strongly to the likelihood that most of the transmission of this virus occurs indoors. While outside spaces are not completely risk-free, preliminary research indicates that outdoor activities are relatively safe, assuming you socially distance — i.e., maintain six feet of space between individuals. See our Addendum: Indoor/Outdoor Transmission of COVID-19, at the end of this report, for further information.

Five outdoor activities that elevate well-being

In this time when so many of us are working or studying from home, and spending so much time online and at our desks (in confined interior spaces), making the effort to spend time outside is all the more imperative — for you and everyone in your family. This report profiles five outdoor activities, with a special new profile on gardening, that are all associated with documented mental and physical health benefits:

  1. Gardening for life
  2. Rejuvenation in nature
  3. Playtime as a priority
  4. Walking for heart and mind
  5. Run for your health

Gardening for life

Given our current health challenges, you clearly take less risk by sheltering at home, with a consistent family unit. And at home, your outside space is the safest place to be. Therefore, we lead off this overview of “outdoor wellness” with a special feature on gardening — that age-old, but tried-and-true, therapeutic form of light exercise/meditation.

As profiled by AARP in 5 Secret Health Benefits of Gardening, gardening’s health benefits are numerous:

  • Increases your exposure to Vitamin D — (but after 10 min., make sure you wear sunscreen)
  • Decreases dementia risk — (studies are preliminary, but encouraging)
  • Boosts your mood
  • Represents a healthy form of aerobic exercise; and also increases strength, stamina and flexibility
  • Helps combat loneliness


But gardening’s mental benefits truly go beyond this list, as profiled ably by Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania, in 10 Mental Health Benefits of Gardening (Psychology Today). Gardening’s rather unique benefits include:

  • Practicing acceptance – Gardening is a venue in which you learn to accept the limits of your control and the unpredictability of life, leading to more peace of mind.
  • Moving beyond perfectionism – Gardening is an antidote to perfectionism, because “no matter how carefully you plan and execute your garden, there are countless factors you can’t predict — invasions by bugs, inclement weather, hungry rodents.”
  • Developing a growth mindset – “With a growth mindset, we assume that we’re constantly learning. When something doesn’t work out the way we had hoped, we view it as a learning opportunity rather than as a ‘failure.’”
  • Connecting to others – Gardening can be “a collective effort” that involves the whole family.
  • Connecting to your world – “Having a garden really means having a relationship with the plot of ground you’re tending.”
  • Bathing in green – “A growing body of research has found all kinds of benefits from being in natural landscapes.” (See our next section, Drinking in nature, for details.)
  • Being present – “The garden can be a protected place where we practice being where we are and actually doing what we’re doing.”
  • Physical exercise – Gardening really works out every part of your body, at your own pace.
  • Reducing stress – “There’s something about feeling the life all around you, the warmth of the sun, the soil in your hands.”
  • Eating healthfully – A garden can yield the freshest and healthiest foods available: fruits and vegetables.

Rejuvenation in nature

Dr. Katie Curhan, Ed.D., a former postdoctoral scholar in Stanford’s Department of Psychology, explained that, “Simple as it sounds, connecting with nature can make you feel better.” Being in contact with nature, even in small ways (like noticing the spring flowers or putting a plant in your office), “can take you a step away from your daily grind, and lead you to feel more positive and calm.”

The science behind nature’s restorative power is actually quite extensive. Curhan cited “the numerous studies suggesting that activities in natural settings or exposure to natural features have important stress reduction and restoration effects.” She also quoted studies that linked nature with more positive emotions, better medical outcomes and improved performance on cognitive tasks.

Additional research has added credence to the notion that experiences in nature boost not only mood, but also cognition. Atchley et. al., in the 2012 study, Creativity in the Wild, were among the first scientists to document systematic changes in higher-level cognitive function associated with immersion in nature. Similarly, former Stanford postdoctoral research (and current assistant professor at the University of Washington), Gregory Bratman, PhD, authored a 2015 report demonstrating that “those who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination (focused attention on negative aspects of oneself), and negative affect, as well as more positive emotions, in comparison to urban walkers. The nature walkers also scored better on memory tasks.”

Perhaps the most surprising research finding is that creativity is enhanced when out in nature. Stanford’s Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz showed in a 2014 report that “walking boosts creative ideation in real-time and shortly after” and “walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality analogies.”

Playtime as a priority

Similarly, playtime lights up your brain, improves your mood and connects you to the world. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder and president of the National Institute for Play, explained how “play is a survival drive that is necessary for adaptation, flexibility and social learning. Play helps us belong in the community, develop the ability to suppress unwanted urges, and regulate our emotions.”

Gardening, in fact, really is an adult (or family) form of play… as is walking in nature. Thus, our categories of outdoor wellness are interrelated.

Walking for heart and mind

Walking’s health benefits have been well-documented, and of course, the exercise benefit comes first to mind. In Why walk?, Wellness Coach, Julie Anderson, MPH, explained that the “power of walking” is often underestimated, compared with running or jogging. “Sometimes people think that if they’re not really sweating or exercising for an hour, it’s not worth it. However, even a few 10-minute walks around your building each day add up to something.” Indeed, 30 minutes of walking or some type of moderate-intensity activity 5 days a week to promote and maintain health meets the recommendations published by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.

But walking has additional benefits. As a 2020 Harvard report states, walking “counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes helps tame a sweet tooth, reduces the risk of developing breast cancer, eases joint pain and boosts immune function.”

Furthermore, preliminary data presented by Yian Gu, PhD, of Columbia University, at this year’s American Academy of Neurology, suggests that “as people age, physical activity may reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Our study used brain scans to measure the brain volumes of a diverse group of people and found that those who engaged in the top third-highest level of physical activity had a brain volume the equivalent of four years younger in brain aging than people who were at the bottom third activity level.”

And, as mentioned in the above “Drinking in nature” section, Stanford’s Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz studied The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking and concluded that walking not only boosts physical health but also enhances the creative process.

Even when getting outside and walking is not an option, taking a short break from work just to stand up, stretch and move has documented health benefits. What even top athletes may not realize is that regular workouts, while beneficial to your health, do not entirely counteract the negative effects of sitting, as research has demonstrated. The most startling finding: People who sit a lot are more likely to be at risk for heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and early mortality — even if they are conscientious about spending 30 to 60 minutes a day exercising.

Run for your health

While running isn’t for everyone, running’s cardiovascular benefits are obvious, more recent research indicates that running:

  • Reduces the rate of deaths from other causes, including diabetes, malignancies, and neurological disorders
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Enhances mental health
  • Benefits your joints and overall orthopedic health
  • Increases your survival odds


By Lane McKenna

Addendum: Indoor/Outdoor Transmission of COVID-19

While outside spaces are not completely risk-free, preliminary research indicates that most of the transmission of COVID-19 is probably occurring indoors. A study from China, Indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2, reported these results:

“In 318 outbreaks with three or more cases identified, involving 1245 confirmed cases in 120 prefectural cities, we identified only a single outbreak in an outdoor environment, which involved two cases. … All identified outbreaks of three or more cases occurred in an indoor environment, which confirms that sharing indoor space is a major SARS-CoV-2 infection risk.”

In Japan, a study found that “the odds that a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment.”

Health experts say that outside airflow helps to disperse the virus. “It definitely spreads more indoors than outdoors,” Roger Shapiro, a professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Hill. “The virus droplets disperse so rapidly in the wind that they become a nonfactor if you’re not really very close to someone outdoors — let’s say within six feet.”

Megan Mahoney, MD, Stanford Health Care’s chief of staff and a Stanford Medicine professor of primary care and population health, concurs: “Socializing outside will dramatically reduce the risk of transmission. The wind disperses the virus.” (Scope, 6.16.20)

That isn’t to say that there isn’t any risk outside — there are few cases where outdoor transmission occurred, and if people do not continue to take precautions like wearing a mask and staying six feet apart, they could contract COVID-19. “The risk is lower outdoors, but it’s not zero,” Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, told The New York Times. “And I think the risk is higher if you have two people who are stationary next to each other for a long time, like on a beach blanket, rather than people who are walking and passing each other.”

In a June 17, 2020 NPR article, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm (founder and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota) is interviewed. His 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, was recently republished with a new foreword about COVID-19. (Mark Olshaker is the book’s co-author.) Osterholm states:

“There’s an old phrase in the environmental movement, ‘The solution to pollution is dilution.’ And actually, in infectious diseases, the same thing is true. … When you and I talk, we fill a room full of aerosols. If you actually had a special camera (that does exist and you can do this), you can actually see aerosols fill the room and these little particles after just 20 or 30 minutes of talking. So anything that moves air and moves that out more quickly is surely helpful. … Outdoors has its own natural, in a sense, air conditioning. I often hear people talking about the risk of going to the beach, and ironically, beaches are probably some of the safest places to go to if you’re not literally cheek and jowl with someone, just because the wind is blowing all the time. It’s creating, in a sense, kind of a cleansing of the air where that virus might come out.”

Osterholm’s negative assessment of indoor air is a stark contrast:

“If you’re in a building where the heating, ventilation, and cooling system is not moving air very frequently, then that aerosol that that person is breathing in that conference room is going to build up over time. And so, yes, you are going to be a greater risk in that kind of setting. Right now, we have to understand that the single greatest risk factor we have for transmitting this virus is largely indoor air, where we’re in large crowds, where we are sharing that air with the people right around us.”