Many of us spend a lot of time indoors these days. Working from home is becoming increasingly common, and with new shows to stream and never-ending new technology to play with, it’s no surprise that making time to get outside more has taken a back seat for some.
But could less time outside have a negative impact on our health? Read on to learn about the concept of nature deficit disorder (NDD) and how it can impact our lives.
What is nature deficit disorder?
Nature deficit disorder is an idea – not an official medical or mental condition. So, it’s not recognized as a disorder in any medical manuals like Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This means that while you may experience symptoms of nature deficit disorder, it’s not something a doctor can officially diagnose.
The concept of NDD was introduced by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.”
The idea is that as humans, especially children, are spending less time outdoors than in the past, this is contributing to a range of mental and physical issues like attention deficit disorders and obesity.
How nature helps us feel good
An expanding body of research suggests that direct exposure to nature has a range of positive health benefits.
Just think about when you feel the most clearheaded. It’s likely not in front of a computer screen or hunched over your phone – where you’re bombarded with constant entertainment, emails and noise. When you step outside, you probably take a deep breath and start to feel relaxed. Being out in nature is good for the mind and the body. Why is that?
When you spend time outside, the area of your brain that’s linked to depression and anxiety increases in activity, having a positive impact on your mood. It can also help you focus on more positive emotions, improve your memory and your ability to multitask and concentrate. Outside time can even improve your capacity for empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
Nature can help you physically too. The relaxing environment can help reduce your stress level and heart rate, which are big contributing factors to heart disease. Being outside may motivate you to move more and exercise, improving your levels of fitness and promoting a healthier lifestyle – which has been shown to reduce cancer risk, improve sleep quality and increase life expectancy.
Causes of nature deficit disorder
Here are a few things that could have contributed to us spending less time outdoors than in the past:
As we mentioned earlier, working and learning for adults and kids have become increasingly digital, and so is the way many people spend their down time. The way people get and process information has changed too – social networks and mass media messages have a tendency to amplify fear of the unknown, whether that be of strangers, environmental change or the risks associated with outdoor play.
The way kids play has changed. Before, they may have played outside until the sun went down, rode bikes or went to playgrounds. Now, much of that play takes place in front of a screen, and solitary play is more common than group play. More screen time equals less time outside enjoying green spaces, which can take a toll on physical and mental well-being.
Environmental and lifestyle changes
It used to be more common to grow your own food in gardens or on small farms, but as time has passed, most food is produced on larger, more commercialized farms. This type of food production results in less time spent outside in your own garden and disappearing green spaces, not to mention potentially harmful chemicals being introduced into our diets and the environment.
Symptoms of nature deficit disorder
Again, NDD isn’t an officially recognized medical condition. However, doctors and clinicians agree that getting outside has important health benefits.
Some of the symptoms that have been connected to the idea of nature deficit disorder include:
- Behavioral issues
- Declining health and well-being
- Increased levels of stress
- The potential for poor academic performance
- Trouble maintaining focus on day-to-day tasks and activities
- Vitamin D deficiency
Nature deficit disorder symptoms in kids
Kids’ lives are often heavily scheduled – after-school sports and activities, lessons and classes take up a large chunk of kids’ time, making less time for unstructured play. And when there is time to play, TV, tablets and smartphones have taken the place of direct experience with the outdoors, and many kids get an indirect experience with nature through a screen. Children are more likely to experience symptoms of NDD, but it can affect people of all ages.
When children don’t go outside and spend much of their time staring at a screen instead, it may result in a shortened attention span, decreased problem-solving skills, obesity and other issues with their emotional and physical health. This is especially problematic in children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as they may already experience these symptoms, and lack of time outdoors doesn’t help.
Studies have shown, however, that increasing children’s outdoor time can improve their emotional and physical health, as well as improve cognitive abilities. It can even reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders like depression and other mood disorders, later in life.
Nature deficit disorder and sleep
Your body goes through a 24-hour cycle called light-related circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is an internal clock that helps you wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night, and it resets every day by the sun’s light cycle. Your body also produces melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep when there is less light, like when the sun sets. When the sun rises, your melatonin levels drop. This is all helpful when you’re going through normal sleep cycles, but what if you’re exposed to artificial light?
This is where the idea of nature deficit disorder can come into play. More time indoors and in front of screens means you’re more exposed to artificial light. Artificial light, also known as blue light, decreases melatonin in your body and disrupts your natural sleep patterns. Blue light is present in natural light too – it can help boost attention span, reaction times and your mood – but when you’re exposed to blue light after the sun sets, it makes your body want to stay awake.
Many electronics and energy-efficient lights have blue wavelengths that you’re exposed to after the sun sets, and that could be messing with your sleep. Putting down your phone, turning off the TV and turning off energy-efficient lights when the sun sets may help reset your sleep cycles. And getting outdoors and being exposed to natural light can also help reset your natural body clock, along with a whole host of other positive mental and physical health benefits.
Ways to prevent nature deficit disorder symptoms
If you live in a climate that experiences extreme heat or extreme cold, it’s understandable that you may be reluctant to go outside, and that could be why you may have symptoms of nature deficit disorder. But even in extreme conditions, it’s still important for people of all ages to get safe outdoor time.
- Turn off the technology – Instead of sitting in front of the TV or tablet for a few hours, replace it with outdoor time. Head out to your own backyard, take a walk or play with your kids at a neighborhood park.
- Reduce screen time – The recommended amount of screen time is no screen time for kids under two, one hour per day for kids ages 2-12 and two hours per day for teens and adults. Aim for even less – but be realistic with your limits and set goals that are attainable. Use the time saved to get outside and soak up the sun.
- Take a fun field trip – It doesn’t have to be far or cost anything. Find a nature center, go for a scenic hike, walk around a public garden or bike on a public trail.
- Find a new outdoor activity – Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to play tennis or golf. You can likely get equipment secondhand, and it never hurts to check with your local parks and recreation department to see if they offer free or reduced-price classes.
- Have fun in all four seasons – Build a snowman or go sledding in the winter; play in the rain or do a neighborhood cleanup in the spring; go for a swim or have a picnic in the summer; and go leaf peeping or to an apple orchard in the fall. The options for outdoor fun are endless.
- Develop a green thumb – If you have a backyard, you could try planting a vegetable or flower garden. If you live in a space with a balcony, create a mini garden or plant herbs.
- Become involved with your community – Chances are, there are plenty of outdoor volunteer opportunities where you live. Park cleanup, home building and charity races are all easy ways to get the whole family involved and give back.
- Sign up for sports or camps – Maybe there’s a nature day camp near you or a soccer club that needs players. These are great ways to get a dose of vitamin D.
- Green up your space – If you work from home, set up a workspace that has lots of natural light, preferably facing outside. The same goes for kids and homework – if the weather is nice, have them complete it outdoors or set them up at a desk near a window.
- Try forest bathing – A safe stroll in the woods has a lot of mental and physical health benefits, and can reduce stress and anxiety. There are even studies that show natural essential oils breathed in from wood and plants can give your immune system a boost.
- Teach kids about nature – Whether it’s in your own backyard, from a balcony or at a public park, teach kids to identify plants and animals you see, send them on a scavenger hunt, and even bring the learning inside with books and documentaries about nature. It’s important for kids to understand the good – and the bad – about being outside.
- Practice what you preach – Screen time limits aren’t just for kids. Put down your phone and show your kids how fun playing and exploring the outdoors can be.
Being outdoors is important for your health
Even if it’s just for 20 minutes a day, make time to get outside. Your mental and physical well-being relies on it. If you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms of nature deficit disorder and you need some help getting on track, reach out to your primary care doctor or clinician to make an appointment.
They can help you create a plan to work more of the outdoors into your routine and connect you with a mental health specialist if needed.