Thanks to COVID-19, spending time outdoors has been more popular than ever this past year. Many of us took up outdoor activities and camping, or even went all-in with the 1000 hours outside challenge or the Nordic concept of open-air living. But there are lots of reasons why we should keep this ‘trend’ going, even – or especially! – if you’re chronically ill.
Research shows that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature improves your physical and mental health in many ways. Being in natural environments reduces your stress levels and blood pressure, boosts your mood and improves your immunity. This all leads to a lower chance of developing heart disease, diabetes and obesity. What’s more, exposure to green space – even in urban areas – improves your working memory, attention span and cognitive development in children.
The good news is, it doesn’t matter if you reach those 120 minutes of nature time in a single visit or spread out over the week. And even better, the positive association between spending time outdoors and better health was even found in people with chronic illness and disabilities – and not just because healthy people are able to visit nature more often.
But those two hours do form a ‘threshold’ – there were no significant health benefits found for people who visited the park, beach or woodlands for less than 120 minutes per week. Two hours of outdoor time a week sounds like a reasonable goal for healthy adults, but when you’re struggling with pain, exhaustion and limited mobility, reaching that number becomes a lot more challenging.
How can you get 120 minutes of nature time in each week when you’re chronically ill? Obviously, that depends on your health, living situation and weekly schedule, but here are 10 strategies that might help.
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How to Make Outdoor Time Accessible for Chronic Illness
1. Consider nature therapy part of your recovery plan.
We spend our time and energy on what’s important to us. And if you’ve read this far, you probably see the potential of nature time to support your health and happiness. So try to view those 120 minutes outdoors as ‘nature therapy’ – a wellness activity that will help you manage your symptoms or even boost your healing.
Ideally, spending time outdoors will become something you enjoy and look forward to. I’ve never been an outdoorsy person, but ever since my kids started dragging me outside each day, I’ve noticed the difference in my energy levels, alertness, focus and mood afterwards.
Just like you mind getting enough sleep and eating plenty of vegetables, consider your weekly nature time as one of the strategies of your action plan for recovery.
2. Break up those 120 minutes per week.
The research confirms that you don’t have to spend those 120 minutes in nature in one visit to reap the benefits. Of course, it would be great if you could get a daily dose of nature therapy, but if that’s not an option for you, don’t worry either.
Take a look at what works best for your health situation and schedule. Do you prefer going outside for 15 minutes each day or do you need rest days in between? In that case, you’re probably better suited with 30 minutes 4 days a week. Or maybe you’d love to get in one long session on the weekend, when you can get help from your family and friends?
Also choose times of day when you’re most likely to feel relatively ok to go outside. Don’t forget to plan for enough rest afterwards if being outdoors is taxing on your body and brain.
3. Make it easier to head outside.
When you’re tired and in pain, simply getting out of the door can already take up lots of energy. If that’s the case for you, building in helpful routines could help. For example, organize your entrance so you can easily grab your most comfortable shoes, coats and mobility aids if needed. You could even put a tiny stool or bench in the hallway to sit down while getting dressed, if you have the space. Keep a basket with winter gear like gloves and hats at hand during the colder seasons, and your sunglasses and sun screen lotion in summer.
Do you need to bring (emergency) meds, inhalers, snacks or a water bottle when going out? Make a habit of keeping your purse packed and ready to go. Depending on your needs, you can carry a pill box for traveling or use a bag organizer. Having a cute pouch with painkillers, bandages and female hygiene products you can easily put in your bag also works.
And finally, try not to overthink it. When you’re stuck at home most of the time, you may not feel mentally prepared to deal with sensory overload from traffic and crowds, temperature changes or sudden symptom flare ups. As understandable as it is, don’t get too caught up in ‘what if’ scenarios or others worries.
4. The greener, the better.
Not everyone lives near beautiful nature areas, and getting to a forest or beach can be a big obstacle when you have limited mobility. But if you can get to a park, botanical garden or other patch of green near your home, go there for your outdoor sessions.
Spending time in green surroundings proves to ease mental fatigue and improve your mood. Forest air, especially, contains organic particles that can boost your immunity up to one month (!) after a walk in the woods. But even visiting green spaces in urban areas can benefit your health, happiness and cognition.
And don’t forget ‘blue spaces’ like ponds, lakes and the sea. Studies suggest that greater exposure to bodies of water leads to more physical activity and better mental health. Pretty good for a day at the beach, right?
That being said, if the patio, roof top terrace or a short walk around the block is all you manage, that’s great too. You still get the benefits of fresh air and sunlight on your skin.
5. Movement is not a requirement…
Moving your body outdoors has lots of benefits for your wellbeing, but if you’re unwell, simply sitting outside also works. Not only does exposure to natural daylight reset your body clock and stimulates your skin to produce bone-strengthening vitamin D, just looking at greenery also restores your brain power and supports healing from surgery.
On days when exercising isn’t an option, you can bring a picnic blanket to the park, lie down in the sand or go to a nearby park to sip coffee in the sun. You could also extend your grocery trips or school runs by resting on a bench in a green space for 10 minutes.
Even better, embrace ‘friluftsliv’, the Norwegian concept of open-air living. Take your lunch and drinks outside if you have an outdoor area, or read a magazine by the open window. Got a garden or porch? Set up a comfortable day bed outside. It doesn’t have to be a fancy lounge bed, perhaps you can make a reclining sun lounger comfortable enough to rest in. And when the weather’s getting cooler, bundle up under a blanket and bring a thermos with healthy hot chocolate to warm you up.
Moving your body outdoors is not a necessity to reap the health benefits of nature time, but paying attention to your natural surroundings is.
6. …But awareness is key.
You don’t have to be physically active during your outdoor time, but don’t stare at your phone and count down the minutes until you can head back inside. Nature therapy only works if you turn it into a mindful, multi-sensory experience. So leave your screens at home (or tucked away in your bag) and truly pay attention to your surroundings.
Engage all your senses: feel the breeze on your skin, listen to the birds chirping and soak up the fresh air. Can you smell the rain on the grass or taste the salt from the sea on your lips?
If natural mindfulness doesn’t come easy to you – or you get bored quickly- you could also study what’s around you. Look up at the sky and learn about different clouds, go bird watching or count the number of animals you come across. Take your family on a nature scavenger hunt if you fancy! When you look closely, you can find beauty everywhere.
7. Work with the weather.
I know the saying goes that there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing. But when you have serious health problems, chances are, your body has a harder time adapting to the cold, heat or sudden temperature changes. So how can you squeeze more outdoor time in in the midst of winter or summer?
First of all, get the right clothes and accessories. For years, I wanted to hang on to beautiful woolen coats in winter. That’s cute if you live in mild climates or have an office job, but not so convenient when you’re a Dutch mom cycling through wind and rain. So finally I bought a huge thermo jacket, that kind of looks like I’m going on a Pole expedition in a baby pink sleeping bag. But who cares, I’m warm and cozy. Whatever the weather conditions in your country, get the gear your need to spend more time outdoors, whether that’s a water-repellent coat, mittens or a wide-brim sun hat.
Secondly, pick the right time of day to head outdoors. You don’t want to go outside after noon in the middle of a heat wave or before sunrise when it’s freezing.
And finally, experiment with ways to help regulate your body temperature on hot or icy cold days. Every body works differently, but things like a heatable cherry pit pillow and warming spices can keep your warm, whereas hydrating foods and wearable cooling gear help with heat intolerance.
8. Have a goal or destination in mind.
When you’re not feeling great or it’s grey and windy, it can be hard to drag yourself outside. Having a goal, destination or purpose can help during those moments.
A healthy day at the beach, picnic in the park or hike in the woods are fun ways to spend time in nature, but everyday outdoor activities also work. Perhaps you can combine running errands with a break amongst greenery. Take the touristic route when going to the post office or cycling to the bakery. You could get yourself a treat, like a magazine or fresh flowers, if you live in walking distance of shops. For inspiration, you can even make a list of seasonal outdoor activities you’d love to do on the weekends, like going apple picking in the fall or visiting the lake in summer.
9. Don’t be afraid to use aids.
Using mobility aids like a wheelchair, walking stick, scooter or e-bike may feel like you’re taking a step back – perhaps a permanent one. But if those items (temporarily) help you to boost your overall wellbeing, your quality of life and perhaps even your future health, isn’t that worth it?
What’s more, don’t be afraid to ask for help to get outdoors more often. Maybe a friend could come along on your nature walks for moral and practical support, or a family member can drive you to a botanical garden if you lack the mobility to do so yourself. Research suggests there’s an overlap to feeling connected to nature and feeling part of a community, so why not mix the best of two worlds?
10. Bring natural souvenirs.
While you’re spending time in nature, release your inner kid and look for shells, chestnuts and pine cones, or beautiful branches. Pick flowers, collect autumn leaves and forage edible plants, like dandelions, nettles and blackberries.
By searching for these natural souvenirs, you’ll get a beautiful reward for making it outdoors, a motivation and reminder to head outside again, plus natural decoration to look at at home! That’s a triple benefit in my book.
Ok, your turn! What is your best tip for getting at least 120 minutes of outdoor time in, despite the obstacles of chronic illness?
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