Fresh air

It rained this weekend. As all parents, school teachers and early childhood educators know, rain is not conducive to calm when there are children involved. Cooped up indoors and already fighting through the mind fog of another growth spurt, my own three-year-old burst into tears over things like “I wish I had green eyes like you” and “The tower of cushions fe-fe-fell dowwwwwn!”. Good thing I know the magical cure for rainy day blues: fresh air.

The Scandinavians have a saying I agree with: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” We pulled on our gumboots, zipped up our rain jackets, jammed beanies on our heads, and opened up umbrellas. I swear the second he stepped into the 4 degree chill outside, his grumpiness vanished. He splashed in puddles down the street, a smile nagging at the corners of his mouth, and his small legs ran fast over the grass of the local park. We stayed out until our fingers were pink and hurting, then hurried back home, making sure to splash through a few big puddles on the way. The fresh air high lasted him for most of the day.

Science backs up me on this: we feel better when we get outside.

In a series of five studies, researchers aimed to tease out the energizing effect of going outdoors. Do we feel energized just because we’re exercising? Or because we’re often socializing? Nope. Being outdoors for just 20 minutes was enough to significantly boost feelings of vitality – as much as a cup of coffee.

Is that because we’re out in nature? Well, that’s definitely part of it. ‘Forest Bathing’ is the Japanese term for getting outdoors and it has a host of benefits, from reducing stress, anxiety and depression, to boosting the immune system and reducing symptoms of ADHD. And it turns out, you don’t even need to go outside to get some benefits. High school students in classrooms with views of green space instead of buildings, were shown to do better on tests and recover faster from stress. And they were just looking at nature. That’s powerful stuff! But the whole getting in nature thing is a subject for another post, what I’m interested in today is the actual air.

When I lived in central Auckland I would try to go for a run through the concrete jungle, but I often felt like I was choking on exhaust fumes. I still remember getting off the bus on a visit to my hometown of New Plymouth and experiencing this incredible feeling that I could finally breathe again. It has stuck with me ever since.

Air pollution and mental health are linked. A Chinese study showed that people who lived in areas of higher air pollution rated their mental health lower than those in less polluted areas, and teens in Taiwan were less happy the more polluted their air.

And beyond subjective things like happiness, fresh air has been shown to have an impact on academic performance. One study in 2015 measured air quality in 70 fifth grade classrooms in the States. Researchers discovered that the students in classrooms with fresher air got better scores on standardized tests. So, opening the windows led to better marks. Fascinating.

The thinking goes that fresh air has more oxygen than stuffy room air, and oxygen has many important roles in the body. In the brain it helps you concentrate, in terms of heart health it helps that the heart doesn’t have to work overtime to get the oxygen it needs to function, oxygen helps fight off bacteria and viruses so you don’t get sick, and the amount of oxygen in your blood affects how much serotonin your body produces. Serotonin is a hormone that stabilizes mood and makes you happy. Something my three-year-old, with his light-up gumboots stomping down the sodden street, can attest to.

As for me, the windows in our office building don’t open. So if I feel like my brain is going fuzzy, I often skip downstairs and get a little bit of fresh air outside. But even then, I notice the difference between the air where I work and the air in my neighbourhood, which is a bit more removed from the city centre. It just feels fresher out there. So, if the artificial lights and air con air at work are giving me headaches, I’ve found the best solution is simply to work from home for a day, where I can throw the windows open, or even sit outside if the sun is out. It is amazing what that does for my mental clarity, and my mood.

So, despite the rain, hail, sleet and even snow we’ve had lately, I have absolutely no qualms about dragging my grumpy preschooler outside. He may protest while I wrap in his jerseys and jackets, but I know that as soon as that fresh air hits him, it will fill his lungs, heart, brain and soul, and he’ll be happy once again.

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