You probably know there are plenty of pros to stepping outside if you want to relax or exercise. Turns out there are also terrific reasons to head outdoors when you eat a meal.
To be clear, it won’t do you good if you end up on a balcony overlooking a traffic-clogged street that sends car fumes your way. Instead, try to find a greener space. It might be a patch of grass in a park or a picnic table under a tree.
“Studies are very clear showing that it reduces stress for us to be outdoors,” says Suzanne Cushwa Rusnak, coordinator of mindfulness programming for University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio.
Eating in nature has other, more specific, advantages too—including boosting mental and physical health. Here are a few:
1. Food tastes better—and you digest it more easily
“When we are stressed, we are not paying attention to what we’re eating, and we are not going to enjoy it as much,” says Rusnak, who teaches mindful eating, as part of a larger program on mindfulness. “We are not going to digest as well—that’s just a physiological fact.”
To be sure, mindfulness isn’t necessarily about enjoying things more. Rather, “it’s to observe what you are experiencing,” Rusnak notes.
Luckily, food usually tastes good, especially when we are hungry. So being mentally present when we eat it, helps us better notice how pleasurable it is. In other words, a simple act of mindfulness ends up highlighting something enjoyable.
2. Concentration increases
Studies suggest being outside helps you focus. But this won’t be true if you’re tapping away on a phone or computer. Leave those behind (or at least ignore them), and let nature work its wonders on you.
Natural environments “are associated with a gentle, soft fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish,” according to researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah.
3. Vitamin D production sparks
As long as the sun is out and you’re not covered in clothes or sunscreen, your body’s production of vitamin D will kick in. Sunlight hitting your skin is key to getting the process going. You need only 10 to 15 minutes a few days a week to meet your weekly vitamin D needs, according to Harvard Medical School.
Very few foods have significant amounts of vitamin D, so the outdoors is an exceptional friend on this front. Vitamin D builds and maintains strong bones, helping prevent osteoporosis. Studies also suggest sunlight can protect against cancer, depression, heart attacks and stroke.
4. Your immune system amps up
We’ve already noted that being outside reduces stress. In turn, reducing stress boosts your immunity to bad stuff. Digging a little deeper, some studies have looked at why nature, in particular, does positive things for the immune system.
A recent Japanese study measured the activity of cells in the immune system that respond quickly to viruses and tumor formation. Folks who had spent time in the woods had a marked increase in the activity of those cells (aptly called human natural killer cells)—and the boon lasted for more than a week. Researchers found that antimicrobial substances that trees and plants give off, called phytoncides, likely deserve credit for that.
Learn more about journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.