A new year begins and brings with it, we can only hope, the beginning of the end of the horrendous pandemic that has been - quite literally - plaguing us for almost two years. We are all aware of the suffering caused by coronavirus and in many cases we have experienced that suffering first hand. Another thing we are all aware of is that the pandemic is changing us as people and as a society. In this issue of the magazine (see pages 14 to 23), for example, we look at how spending more time at home than normal is affecting our mental health, increasing our dependence on electronic devices and aggravating anxiety disorders like agoraphobia.
However, as well as problems, crises bring with them opportunities. If the coronavirus pandemic has forced us inside and exposed us as a society to such negative consequences as a lack of social interaction or greater alcohol and drug consumption, for example, might we also hope that it has made us appreciate some of life’s simple pleasures, such as spending more time outside?
I live in a rural area that has an extensive network of tracks and paths that exist for agricultural purposes but attract lots of walkers and cyclists. When the lockdown was announced at the start of the pandemic, the numbers using the local paths exploded, as people responded to being confined by enjoying one of the few activities allowed. Those numbers have gone down since then, but I get the feeling that there are still more people using the local tracks than at any time I can remember in the previous 15 years.
And that can only be a good thing, and for lots of reasons.
As the experts consulted in the series of articles mentioned above all say, the best treatment for people that suffer from anxiety about leaving the house is to do just that, to go out and to expose themselves to the thing they fear.
But the advantages of being outside go much further.
For example, studies show that spending time outside can help us sleep better, as the more time we spend outdoors, the more in tune we become with nature’s light-and-dark cycle, while an excess of artificial light interferes with our circadian rhythms.
Then there is the issue of vitamin D. Sunlight is one of the best sources of this essential nutrient, and vitamin D deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of Covid-19 infection, along with other diseases. And while we’re on the subject, numerous studies show that the chances of catching Covid are massively reduced when we are outdoors. That’s because fresh air disperses and dilutes the virus and helps evaporate the liquid droplets that carry it. An added bonus is that the ultraviolet light from the sun kills viruses that are out in the open.
Finally, Covid or no Covid, exercising outdoors brings benefits that you just don’t get inside. Physical activity outside lowers a person’s blood pressure and heart rate, studies have found, which makes outdoor exercise feel less strenuous than the same or similar exercise indoors and therefore boosting performance, which means you get more for your effort.