How Much Time Should We Be Spending Outdoors?

We all know it’s a good idea to get up off the couch for a little while but what does a little fresh air actually do for us? How much time should we be spending outdoors?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #290

As the weather gets warmer, at least here in the northern hemisphere, the longer daylight hours are offering us more and more time to spend outdoors. At the same time, our increasingly hotter summers may leave some of us running for indoor, air-conditioned spaces. We all know it’s a good idea to get up off the couch for a little while but what does a little fresh air actually do for us? How much time should we be spending outdoors?

Today’s kids spend half the time playing outside compared to their parents. That’s a current average outdoor time of only four hours per week. For older children, these numbers only decrease. A recent study from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute showed that kids ages 10 to 16 spend less than 13 minutes a day on activities outside compared to over 10 waking hours a day spent doing sedentary activities.

The Health Benefits of the Outdoors

So why does this matter? More time outside as a child can help improve your immune system and reduce your likelihood of developing allergies. The great outdoors can also improve focus in young kids: one study found that children with ADHD were better able to focus after even 20 minutes of walking through a park. The varied stimuli and unpredictable nature of the outdoors can help children improve their motor skills and spatial awareness.

Studies have shown the benefits of outdoor play extend to children as young as three months old. Playing outside contributes to sensory as well as physical development as the scenery is not always the same as it tends to be indoors.

But the benefits of the outdoors are not just for kids! If we’re doing things outside, we are more likely being active, so we’ll get more exercise which can ultimately make us happier. (Thank you, endorphins.) And just as with our younger versions, skin exposure to sunlight activates vitamin D which has been linked to lower risks of osteoporosis, cancer, heart attacks, and even depression. In a study published by Harvard Health, patients recovering from spinal surgery even healed faster when they spent more time outside because they had less pain and stress.

Spending more time outside may also help improve short-term memory, something we could all probably use help with as we get older. Two groups of students from the University of Michigan were studied in an experiment designed to test the influence of being out in nature on memory. The students were given a memory test, then sent for a walk before repeating the test again. One group of students, those sent for a walk through an open-air garden, showed a 20% improvement in their results on the memory test after the time spent outdoors. The other group, those sent for a walk down a busy city street, showed no improvement.  


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.