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Getting Outside for Your Health

Recent research shows that being in nature has very real benefits for physical and emotional health. But the average American spends as much as 90 percent of their time indoors, so few of us experience the benefits of time outside. And family caregivers looking after a homebound loved one may find it especially difficult to get outside. Sheltering in place during the COVID-19 crisis has made getting out of your house or apartment particularly attractive and important. For most people, as long as you practice social distancing and wear a mask over your nose and mouth, you minimize your risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Benefits of Time Outside

Spending some time outside is rejuvenating, mentally and physically, for young and old alike. Take advantage of the health benefits:

Vitamin D

When our skin is exposed to sunlight, our bodies make and use vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to help with a variety of ailments from depression to osteoporosis to cardiac disease. While people should not spend a lot of time outside without sunscreen or protective clothing, 15 to 20 minutes in direct sunlight a few days a week can help improve levels of this important vitamin.

Strength

A daily walk around the block lets you experience the benefits of exercise. Physical activity makes your muscles stronger, which improves balance and lowers your risk for falls. Exercise can also help control or reduce pain, improve your ability to fall asleep, and reduce depression symptoms.

Mood

Natural light improves mood. Many studies have shown that the closer you live to nature, the healthier you’re likely to be. Being in nature, or even close to it, can help relieve some of the stresses of modern life.

Social contact

Homebound individuals often have less contact with other people, and feelings of isolation can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Spending time outside can help to reduce loneliness. Sitting on your front stoop or porch, or on a nearby park bench, can help you feel connected to your neighbors and your neighborhood. Just remember to stay at least six feet away from others, and keep your nose and mouth covered!

Ideas for Activities

Though finding opportunities to spend time in nature for New Yorkers can often be difficult, numerous local parks offer a free way to escape the urban jungle. Try these ideas:

  • Carry two lawn chairs in your car and any time you have a few minutes, set them up and enjoy the weather. If getting into a lawn chair is too difficult for your loved one, park in the shade and open the doors and windows of the car, allowing the summer breezes in.
  • Set up your outdoor space. If you have a patio, deck, or terrace, put sturdy chairs there. You and your family member will both enjoy the change of pace.
  • If you live in an apartment with no access to outdoor space, open a sunny window and sit nearby.
  • Bring an indoor pursuit outside. Set up a table on a porch or stoop and play cards or board games. Books are another easily portable choice—your loved one can relax with a favorite novel, or it could be fun to take turns reading aloud.
  • Tossing a line in the water can be a wonderful way to unwind, whether you catch anything or not. Many piers and boats are wheelchair accessible. Bonus: Most municipalities offer free or reduced-price fishing licenses to folks over 65.
  • Bird watching doesn’t have to include hiking or exotic travel. Just having a bird feeder in the yard gives your loved one a reason to go outside to check on feathered friends.
  • People watching is a great way to get engaged, whether from a park bench or sitting on a front stoop. Factor in the potential to see an old friend or neighbor or strike up conversation with a genial stranger, and you have a recipe for success.
  • If your family member can be left alone for a few minutes, use that time to take a quick walk outside. Even five minutes of exercising outside has been shown to lift mood through exposure to green spaces. Plus, you’ll be building your heart muscle!
  • If your family member can’t be left alone, then take up your friends’ offers to help. Ask them to mind your loved one for a few minutes and get yourself outside.
  • When you’re caring for someone who spends a lot of time indoors or whose routine doesn’t vary much, a picnic can be a welcome change for both of you. A nearby park can make your picnic even more festive, but a simple bag lunch in the backyard can be just as satisfying.

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