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How to determine the amount of outside time that’s right for you – during the pandemic and beyond

Three crucial steps will help you maximize the physical and mental benefits.

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Before the pandemic struck, I had a tradition that made my life and my work much better. At various times during each workday, I would take calls outside. For meetings with members of my team, I’d invite employees to go for walks with me. I’d do the same for meetings with employees in other cities — encourage them to walk outside wherever they were while we spoke by phone.

I operate much better when I get fresh air, which is often cleaner than indoor air. So do most people, since time outdoors brings a myriad of mental and physical benefits. Still, on busy days, time spent outdoors often falls to the wayside.

Once the pandemic struck I, like millions of others, worked exclusively from home. I was glad to be with my wife and our young daughter, and to still have lots of work with my job at Salesforce. I knew I had it better than many other people who were struggling. Still, I found myself feeling substantially less energetic and focused. In daily journals, I wrote that I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way. 

It was only then that I realized I’d cut back on outside time. I’m far from alone. A survey from Iowa State University found that people’s outside time has been lower since COVID-19 restrictions were implemented. But those who increased or maintained their outside time reported lower stress and higher positive mental health than others. Studies of youths have found them cutting back on outdoors time as well.

Time spent in nature is already too low to begin with here in the U.S. Statista cites a study that found Americans spend less than 8% of their time outdoors. The latest figures available from the American Time Use Survey, from 2019, show that across a week adults spend about 10 minutes a day outside on average away from home (it does not include time that may be spent in their own yards, balconies, etc.).

The fact that even I didn’t realize what was wrong with me is a big sign. I’m especially committed to recreation in nature. I’ve journeyed through the Sahara, Gobi and Atacama deserts, and trekked across Iceland and Antarctica. In 2017 I took part in a race in Patagonia (which is profiled in my upcoming mini-documentary Defeating Average).

But not everyone needs or wants as much outside stimulation as I do. One study reported that people reported feeling better if they had at least 2 hours outside per week, with the benefits maxing out at between 200-300 minutes. The question is: How much is right for you?

During the pandemic, I’ve developed a way to determine how much outside time is right for me. 

Record it

There’s a good chance you don’t realize or recall exactly how much time you’ve been spending outside. Research shows that people may overestimate these figures. So use a journal, piece of paper or notes app to jot down the exact minutes you spend outdoors.

Also note how you’re feeling in general, and how your mood changed after your outside time.

Experiment

You may find that several quick outdoor walks of five minutes each help boost your happiness and creativity and lower your stress. Or you may find that you need a continuous block of 30 minutes to get those benefits. Trial and error will show you.

As part of this, also experiment with different mental models for your time outside. You might want to do work calls while you’re out and about. You might want to get out of that entire headspace, and listen to a podcast or meditation guide. Or, you might want to leave your phone at home and feel more free. See what works for you.

Commit, but keep evolving

Make this a part of each day that you consider a must. But allow for the possibility that what works best for you now might change. 

I’ve found lately that having three separate walks each day does the trick. But I might soon knock that down to two. My brief notes in my journal help me track that.

With an end to the pandemic in sight, we can all start to foresee a time when we spend more time in our offices again — although like millions of others, I plan to keep working from home at least part of the time. When that happens, keep outdoor time a daily must. To help spread this tradition, you may want to invite colleagues to join you. But do so without pressuring people, since group walks at work are not for everyone.

If this time has helped you realize how important time in nature is for your daily life, make that something you hold onto when we all enter a post-pandemic new normal.

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