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There are plenty of well-documented health benefits associated with getting outdoors—increasing vitamin D production and exercise are simply two of them. But did you also know that spending time outside can actually improve your productivity levels? According to Dr. Allison Chase, a clinical psychologist and regional clinical director with Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center, heading outdoors can help you find "relief and balance," especially if you regularly experience stress that distracts you from daily tasks.
In fact, studies suggest that sunlight exposure strongly influences mood and energy levels, and both variables are often correlated with productivity, says Dr. Casey Means, the chief medical officer and co-founder of Levels, which uses biosensors to offer real-time feedback about how what you eat affects your metabolic health. "Just as food is molecular information for our bodies, sunlight is energetic information that tells our brains and cells how to function, when to be awake, and sets conditions for our metabolism." Ultimately, Dr. Means continues, our eyes are our brains' access ports to natural light; the photoreceptors, or light-sensitive cells, in our retinas react to particles of sunlight by changing shape and sending signals—like, "time to get to work!"—to our thinker, she says. This mechanism begins as soon as parts of your suprachiasmatic nucleus (in the hypothalamus of the brain) are exposed to light.
As for how much time you need to be outside to see a productivity boost? One study showed that spending just two cumulative hours per week in the great outdoors positively impacted participants' self assessments of their health and wellbeing, says Dr. Means, sentiments that make us more productive over time. (Other studies, she adds, suggest that time spent in more outdoor friendly areas can lower your risk for a range of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.)
While spending time outside is a key part of the productivity puzzle, the simple act of taking a break is also important. According to Dr. Chase, there isn't necessarily a correlation between hours worked and consistent productivity of output—which is why taking breaks to recharge your brain is important. "Taking the time to go outside and re-charge, in the mode that is most helpful for you, could most definitely improve productivity," Dr. Chase says.
Maximizing the productivity and mental health benefits of being outside isn't one size fits all, notes Dr. Chase—you'll see increased energy so long as you find an outdoor activity that feels good to you. "It is really dependent on both the needs and physical capabilities of the individual," Dr. Chase says. "For some, rigorous physical activity that increases the heart rate and provides the ability for the individual to 'blow off steam' can be beneficial, while for others—such as those struggling with anxiety or stress—taking time to engage in an activity that helps them find calm and peace is a better approach."