One of the things we learned during the pandemic is that fresh air is good for us.
This might seem obvious now, but for the previous 20 years the public-health messaging about air was focused on outdoor air pollution and the diseases it can cause. The air quality index, or AQI, became a ubiquitous part of weather reports. In fact, it’s the second metric on my phone’s weather app, after current temperature and before probability of rain, humidity, wind, “real-feel” temperature and the UV index.
Then, about five years ago, research began to examine a parallel thread: the health hazards of poor indoor air quality. The Environmental Projection Agency noted that pollutants can be two to five times stronger indoors than outdoors. Articles on the phenomenon of “sick building syndrome,” focused on large office buildings, became popular, but we had few means of measuring what tainted the air. Microbes, pesticides, cleaning chemicals and carbon monoxide, we have learned, all contribute to contaminating the air in our homes.
Enter the pandemic, and research emerged that our exhaled aerosols (the fine particles that remain suspended in the air can carry Covid-19. Then came the additional finding that these respiratory aerosols are more easily dispersed (and therefore harder to transfer to someone else) in settings with good air movement—meaning, in general, the outdoors.
For many people this finding was a ticket to sanity. National parks were overwhelmed with visitors, because people felt safe in them. Some parks have even instituted a reservation policy.
So the No. 1 reason to be outdoors these days is that moving air can quickly carry away infectious particles.
There are, of course, other benefits: Air stimulates the five senses. Start with touch. The weather itself provides your nerves and brain with an experience of temperature, humidity and air flow that’s different from being indoors.
There are a number of research studies of the effect of sensory stimulation on people living in long-term care. Tactile stimulation in particular has associated with improvements in memory mood, and socialization for people whose lives are entirely indoors. For you, there is a world of tactile stimulation just outside your door. Touch the tree bark, the leaves, the handrail, the park bench—the list is limitless)
Then there is the sense of smell. Freshly cut grass, flowers, salt air. I, for one, want to read Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree, by David George Haskell (Hachette), once it’s published in the United States. In the meantime, here is an informative and charming article about the smell of rain.
Next is sound. Not every sound has to be pastoral to be appreciated. Walk along a busy street, wait for the driver of a passing car to honk, and listen to the Doppler effect.
And then there is sight. Did you know that the brain has two independent visual systems? When we go out into the world and see some beautiful scenery, we are stimulating our “vision for perception.” And when we are walking along a road and cross to the other side or avoid a crack in the sidewalk, we are activating the second system, “vision for action.” When we recognize a friend or neighbor, both systems are actually at play. (Here’s a deep dive into the topic).
The fifth sense—taste—doesn’t apply as much to our experience of the outdoors, but let’s round out our discussion by raising a glass of water to more walks outside, whether it’s down the hill to a neighbor’s house or across a bustling street to a favorite shop.
Yours in health,