Fresh Air And Freedom: Why We Value Time Outside Like Never Before

It started with a walk, now it's a full blown love affair. There's a reason they call it the great outdoors.

You’re reading Summer’s Not Cancelled, our series celebrating summer in this new normal. From rediscovering nature and cherishing time with loved ones, to virtual festivals and unforgettable staycations – summer’s still here, it’s just different.

It’s a paradox of lockdown that while we’ve stayed indoors more than ever, many of us have spent more time outside that we usually would, too.

That began back in March, when everyone sought to stay sane by leaving the house once a day for our government-allotted hour – keeping our distance, touching as little as possible, doused in sanitiser – before heading home again.

Our daily walk matured into the phenomenon of the lockdown picnic – once we were allowed to sit on the grass – as more of us began using outdoor spaces and parks in a way we hadn’t done since we were teenagers: how nostalgic, innocent and playful does it feel to sit in the park with a friend and a tinnie?

We’d say very.

landscape of the clear sky
kokoroyuki via Getty Images
landscape of the clear sky

Under lockdown, the outdoors has meant survival: freedom from the rigours of a life on pause indoors, passively worrying about, even fearing, the virus. Science also reassured us that we were less likely to catch Covid-19 in the open air.

Perhaps you were a fan of the great outdoors already. Whether city dwellers, country types or suburbanites, most of us are aware of its benefits without the need for hard stats – and that goes for our mental health, too. Just a month into lockdown, came the timely publication of Isabel Hardman’s pre-Covid penned case for the defence, The Natural Health Service, subtitled, ‘What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind’.

But like many missed opportunities, how many of us were actively spending enough time outside until we were forced to with the closure of pubs, bars, restaurants and cinemas?

These indoor venues have now reopened – but parks are still full of thousands of revellers every weekend, from families to young people dragging trestle tables on to commons to set up games of beer pong with friends.

All the while, pubs are half-empty.

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We no longer need to be outdoors, but we’re still choosing to spend time there. Sure, some of us are playing it safe by swerving indoor venues to minimise our chances of catching the virus, but there’s also a sense of a quiet cultural revolution. What does all this increased outdoors time mean for our future lifestyles? Can we expect Brits to sustain socialising outdoors? Are parks really the new pubs, and if so, what are more of the specific health benefits?

“The more time people spend outdoors, the more they’ll notice how good it makes them feel, and that there really is no such thing as bad weather – only inappropriate clothing!” says Linda Geddes, author of Chasing The Sun: The New Science Of Sunlight And How It Shapes Our Bodies And Minds.

Geddes has researched the benefits of being outside for our physical and mental health – and believes the best legacy of lockdown may be the newfound relationship we’ve forged with the outdoors.

I hope these are habits which will stick,” she says. “Not only is it a great way of reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission but spending time outdoors can help to improve your sleep and reduce stress.

“There’s a reason why spas and yoga studios project images of moving leaves or water on to their walls and pipe in natural sounds.”

Sun and light positively impact our health in various ways, she says – of course, vitamin D is generated when the UVB rays in sunlight hit our skin. ”There is also growing evidence for the release of a substance called nitric oxide in response to sunlight, which causes our blood vessels to relax, resulting in a drop in blood pressure. Spending time in nature also seems to lower heart rate and blood pressure, probably by reducing stress.”

It’s important to go for a walk every day if you can.Exposure to sunlight also improves our circadian rhythms, helping us sleep. Even on an overcast day, it is approximately 25 times brighter outdoors than it is indoors with artificial lighting. As our circadian rhythms improve, we may start associating the outside world with a higher quality of life and health – whether consciously or subconsciously.

There’s a reason why spas and yoga studios project images of moving leaves or water on to their walls and pipe in natural sounds, live breaking waves or chirping insects: we find them relaxing,” she adds. “Some scientists have proposed that natural patterns and movement effortlessly engage our attention, providing our busy brains with an opportunity to rest and recover.”

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Ecotherapist Helen Edwards has experienced a surge in bookings since lockdown. “I think it’s really clear at the moment that people are really wanting to connect with nature,” she reflects of her work. She describes the relatively new practice of ecotherapy as a “personal experience of reconnecting with nature, reflecting... and then through really developing that sense of kinship, that sense of belonging. What comes with that is a feeling of wanting to nurture the earth, and wanting to nurture oneself.”

A typical session may involve “walking with somebody in a nature park and something draws their attention: a bird, a tree, a leaf falling, a particular colour, a flower and takes them outside of themselves,” she says.

“Their senses engage and I will really encourage them to invest further, look at more detail, really take some time to slow down and allow that experience to come in. Maybe help them to focus: is it about the shade of colour or the shape of the flower or the colour of the stalk, or is it a lichen on a tree? Then maybe some feeling will come up that connects to allowing that experience in.”

Geddes believes the intersection of lockdown and the ongoing climate crisis has also reinforced our relationship with nature – and will help us sustain it.

Janetta McCoy, an academic specialising in our relationship with buildings and the outdoors, sees it the other way round: nature as the backdrop for strengthening our human relationships, rather than as the focal point.

Our access to the outside world has been relatively limited in recent months to our nearest surroundings, McCoy points out – and in 90°F Texas, where she lives. outdoor swimming pools have become the social hubs of lockdown.

“Indoor games can be mesmerising, but outdoor activities are invigorating,” she says. “The teens have all developed significant swim skills, new games to play, and many new social relationships. Parents do get in the water but not necessarily for exercise, mostly just relaxing and enjoying a beverage. Is this a new relationship to the outdoors? Perhaps it is using the limited [access to] the outdoors to develop and enjoy new social relationships.”

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And will it last? “It will – in some evolutionised state,” says McCoy, citing US writer and naturalist Diane Ackerman’s book A Natural History of the Senses.

″[Ackerman] suggests that stimulation and invigoration comes from nature’s air movement, smells, and colours – perhaps even our inability to totally control them,” she says. ”Inside, our world is static, totally controlled; outdoors gives us variety and perhaps serendipity.”

McCoy notes that it’s “human nature to want what is scarce and unavailable,” – and this was the outdoors during a period that was defined by having to stay inside. “Perhaps because indoor time is now mandated in many places, access to the outdoors and its activities are more enticing,” she says.

Ultimately we may associate being outdoors with the relationships we’ve formed – or cemented – under lockdown. Either way, there’s little doubt it’s provided an antidote to the oppressive repetition of the ‘stay at home’ rule. That feeling of freedom, of experiencing the “scarce and unavailable” breeze, of delighting in the wildflower or mossy tree stump, of lying in the grass listening to birdsong, has formed lasting memories, which in turn creates nostalgia.

Perhaps in years to come, public spaces such as parks may remind us of the temporary respite we found from the entrapments of the virus and pandemic – much like an older generation brightly remember the street parties of VE Day after the stricture of wartime. “Will our children tell their children how in 2020 they weren’t allowed to go out, to see their friends, or even go to school?” muses McCoy. “The ramifications are profound.”