A family walks outside together and hold hands.
Don’t worry about counting steps when you’re out for a walk—simply enjoy the boost in mood. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Where’s the one place everyone has wanted to be in the last year?


Whether it’s for exercise, recreation or socializing, the pandemic has pushed more and more people out into the fresh air.

That’s not only good from a public health perspective, it’s good for your body and mind, too, according to Tim Jelsema, MD, a Spectrum Health orthopedic sports medicine expert.

The trend just might be one of the positive things to emerge from the pandemic—and to stick around long after it’s gone.

“More people are getting out there and getting the heath benefits of being outside and being active,” Dr. Jelsema said.

Among the new hobbies patients have mentioned to him lately: disc golf, fishing and hiking.

They’re easy to do, they don’t require a big financial commitment and they keep you active, he said.

“You’re not sitting at home watching Netflix and being sedentary,” Dr. Jelsema said.

Researchers have begun to study the effects of the pandemic on people’s relationship with the outdoors. One University of Vermont study revealed significant increases in outdoor activity during COVID-19, especially among women. Some of the outdoor activities with increased interest were walking, watching wildlife and gardening.

The study also showed that participants experienced a shift in why they value the outdoors, with 59% saying they felt a greater sense of mental health and wellbeing and 29% saying getting exercise.

Women were up to nearly three times more likely to report increased outdoor activity than men, according to the study.

What are some of the physical and mental benefits of being outside? According to Dr. Jelsema, here are some:

  1. Increased vitamin D levels. This vitamin is known as the sunshine vitamin because the best way to get adequate amounts of it is exposure to sunlight. Keep in mind that you only need about 15 to 30 minutes of sun exposure to absorb enough vitamin D—and you should still be careful to use sunscreen, Dr. Jelsema said.
  2. Better mood. Being outdoors can increase your body’s production of serotonin and dopamine—natural chemicals or neurotransmitters that can improve your mood. Exercising outdoors can also boost endorphins, which can also leave you feeling better, he said.
  3. Better sleep. Spending time outside can help regulate your circadian rhythm—the body’s master clock that controls sleep and wake cycles. That can help ensure a good night’s sleep.
  4. Being more active. Getting outside is an easy way to be more active, Dr. Jelsema said. And for many, walking is a great way to start.

Don’t worry much about the number of steps you get in every day, because there’s no formula that fits for everyone.

“To be honest, however much you can fit into your schedule is important,” Dr. Jelsema said. “If you can hit 7,000 or 8,000 steps a day, that’s great. But anything you can get in is a good thing. You’re going to see health benefits as long as you’re putting in more than you were before.”

Remember that going overboard with some outdoor activities can lead to injuries.

“Start slow,” he said. “Start with smaller goals in the activity and then see if you can build on those.”

If you get injured or start having pain, see a doctor sooner rather than later.

“I always tell people that soreness is OK after an exercise—pain is not,” he said. “Know your limits.”

Waiting can lead to a more serious problem and a longer rehabilitation time.

Pandemic or not, Dr. Jelsema hopes more people continue to find ways to get moving and enjoy the great outdoors.

“I have had many patients come to me and say, ‘Since I have been exercising, my self esteem is higher, my mood is elevated, I am sleeping better,’” Dr. Jelsema said. “And on top of that, there are all the health benefits from it.”