Improve Your Sleep By Spending Time Outdoors

Use the outdoors to improve your sleep

Did you know that you can improve your sleep by spending time outdoors? In this blog post, I’m going to break the research down into practical bite-sized pieces of information so you can take the steps you need to get a better night’s sleep.

The connections between sleep, the outdoors and mental health

Sleep is closely linked to mental and physical health but nearly half of adults report not having adequate sleep. I’ve written in other blog posts about the complex nature of sleep so I won’t delve into the details here. But it’s important to understand that there are many factors that affect sleep quality and quantity. This means that the research about sleep can be pretty tricky. For one thing, it’s difficult to separate out all the different factors and identify exactly what causes what for different people in different situations. One of the factors that we know impacts sleep is spending time outdoors. So let’s have a closer look at how you can use this all-natural treatment to improve your sleep and feel better.

Day to day stresses affect your sleep

Day to day stresses affect your sleep so you need to develop effective stress management strategies not only to deal with your stresses when you’re lying awake in bed at night, but more importantly managing your stresses throughout each day so you don’t carry them to bed with you. There are many ways you can use nature to help with stress management:

  • The fractals of nature can be soothing. Fractals are the patterns that you can see and hear repeated in nature such as tree branches, ripples on a pond, the shape of snowflakes and the way they fall, ocean waves, the patterns on tree bark and animal skin, the sound of a running stream or a waterfall.
  • Meditation and mindfulness practices are known to be very useful for managing stress among other things, and the outdoors is a great place to practise them. Using your senses, bring yourself into the present moment – what do your see / hear / taste / smell / touch? Meditation and mindfulness practices can also help you refocus your attention and let go of stresses that you’re carrying around with you.
  • Physical activity and exercise are great ways to manage stress. Moving your body triggers changes in your bio-chemistry so that you feel better and manage your stresses better. When you get outdoors you’re more likely to be active than when you stay indoors. The point here is to be intentional about giving yourself outdoors time every day and to be as active as possible.
  • If you can’t get outside, for whatever reason, find ways to bring nature in to you that brings you joy and a sense of calm. You could try opening a window, growing indoor pot plants or flowers, displaying sea shells or even hang up a landscape painting or a photo of a natural setting.
  • Your imagination is another tool for managing stress by connecting you with nature even if you’re not outside. If you’re having difficulty sleeping or want to relax, you can visualise yourself in a natural setting. Invite all your senses to help out so that you truly feel as if you’re in a tranquil location surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells that help you de-stress and relax. I like to visualise myself lying on the sand at the beach and letting my stresses drain away into the sand as the sun warms my skin, the waves softly lapping the shore and the she-oaks waving their branches.

Nature setting - beach

Physical activity and exercise reduces stress levels and improves sleep

When you spend time outdoors you’re more likely to be physically active. Your body was designed to move, to be active, so it’s important to move a lot throughout the day. Activity and exercise also tires you out so you’re more likely to get a better sleep.

Medical conditions and pain can affect your activity levels and your sleep. My advice here is to focus on what you CAN do rather than what you can’t. Seek advice from your health professionals about the best and safest ways for you to be active. In general, something is better than nothing.

According to the research, moderate to vigorous physical activity is the best intensity of exercise to improve your sleep. When you are engaged in moderate intensity activity, you’ll feel your heart rate and breathing rate increase. You’ll feel like you’re working but you can still have a conversation with someone. Step it up a notch to vigorous intensity activity and you won’t be able to carry on that conversation any longer. Measuring intensity is all about your personal experience, so make sure you don’t compare yourself with others.

Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines are a useful guide to improve general health and wellbeing including sleep. Some other countries have similar guidelines developed from recommendations published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) including USA, Canada and UK. The Australian Guidelines state:

  • Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
  • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
  • Accumulate 2 ½ to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
  • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.

Exercise in the afternoon can disrupt your sleep, especially if it’s vigorous exercise, so for most people the recommendation is to exercise in the morning if possible and preferably outdoors with the morning light (see my next point!)

The research also shows that time spent outdoors at any time of the day may assist with sleep but afternoon exercise is possibly best kept at a gentle level.

Bushwalking

Light exposure can help or hinder sleep

You can use your exposure to light to help improve your sleep. Go outside first thing in the morning – the blue light that is dominant in the morning wakes you up and triggers your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin which is released after dark and causes you to feel sleepy. Remember to follow the health guidelines for protecting your skin from damage by the sun.

Every morning when you go outdoors into the sunlight, you re-set your body clock. This is why it’s important to avoid blue light after dark. Put your devices away (remember to mute them!) and do some other activities instead. Think about the sorts of activities that previous generations may have done in the evening such as playing or listening to music, reading, playing board or card games and even going to bed earlier!

A consistent daily routine sets you up for a better night sleep

The research suggests that people with a consistent daily routine that incorporates exercise, time outdoors, meal times and relaxing activities in the evening are more likely to sleep better. Does your daily routine consistently include all these things? If not, how you can you re-arrange things so that it does?

But what if you have children or a baby!?

Disruptions to sleep are inevitable when you have children or are caring for someone else. It’s a 24/7 job and it doesn’t go on forever although it might feel like it at the time! The general recommendation is to sneak sleep in when and where you can and to get support or practical help with your responsibilities. If you don’t have a tribe (or a village) around you, create one for yourself and your family rather than striving for independence. Ask for help.

A healthy daily routine is vital for everyone no matter their age. Australia has developed the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines which complement the Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. You can model these guidelines for your family by setting healthy boundaries and routines for everyone that includes outdoors time, physical activity, exposure to natural patterns of light and dark, meal times and bed times.

Tropical Rainforest Adventures with Children

Bring nature into your bedroom

It’s important to have a safe, comfortable sleeping space. You can use nature to enhance your bedroom environment and improve your sleep.

Studies on people who go camping show that many campers sleep better and longer. They also tend to go to bed with the sun and wake up with the sun as our ancestors did. There are probably many factors contributing to this, so I’m not suggesting you move into a tent to improve your sleep, but it’s worth exploring how you might be able to tweak your sleeping environment, evening routine, behaviours and habits to replicate what happens in a camping situation. You could try the following:

  • Dim your house lights after dark and minimise exposure to blue light. You could mute your devices and put them in another room.
  • If you have bright street lights or car lights shining through your bedroom window, think about window coverings that will block them. Change the arrangement of furniture in your room to lessen the problem. Can you grow some plants or install an external window shade that blocks the light?
  • Many people like to keep a light on during their sleeping hours to provide comfort or safety when getting up to the bathroom. Try using a light that has a soft, warm glow rather than a bright light.
  • Air temperature and air flow, or lack of it, can disrupt your sleep. Your body needs to drop in temperature to have a good sleep. Unless you live in the tropics, the temperature normally drops at night time, so be careful not to rug up too much. Likewise, if it’s a hot night, you might need to find ways to cool down such as leaving the windows and internal doors open to allow for air flow.
  • Gazing at the night sky from the comfort of bed can be relaxing for many people, but not for others. Adjust your window coverings and rearrange your furnishings to suit your needs.
  • Waking up with the sunrise and going to bed just after sunset can be a wonderful way to start and end your day. Of course this is different at different times of the year and in different parts of the globe and isn’t always practical. But it’s definitely a habit worth considering.
  • What about the sounds you hear when you go to bed? Many people eventually get used to the sounds in their own neighbourhoods including cars, trains and sirens. But it can also take a while to get used to the sounds of nature at night if you’re not familiar with them. What nature sounds do you find soothing, and which do you find unsettling? How can you intentionally bring soothing sounds into your sleep environment? You could play music that incorporates the sounds of nature or download a ‘nature sounds’ app.
  • Aromatherapy can be used to improve your sleep too. Think about which aromas (or smells) you find soothing in nature and how you can safely bring them into your sleeping space. For example, you could have some fresh or dried lavender in your room if you like that scent, or use essential oils or incense (but for safety reasons don’t keep anything burning or heating when you go to bed, and follow recommended instructions carefully.)

Campsite at Elsey NP

What to do if you need more help to improve your sleep

If your sleep doesn’t improve after trying these strategies, have a chat with your doctor or health professional who can help you explore what you need to do in your situation. There are some medical and psychological conditions such as sleep apnoea, certain chronic diseases and stress disorders that may need more specialised interventions to get you the super sleep you deserve!

It’s up to you now to take action.

What can you do, what’s in your control right now that you can experiment with to improve your sleep? How can you use the outdoors to get a better sleep?

  • Manage your stress levels each day by getting outside or connecting with nature in some way
  • Get outside each day, be more active or increase the intensity of your exercise
  • Spend time outside first thing in the morning to get a dose of natural light that re-sets your body clock and helps you to feel sleepy later in the evening
  • Create a consistent daily routine that includes getting up and going to bed closer to sunrise and sunset, spending time outdoors, getting plenty of movement and exercise, avoiding blue light in the evening and doing some relaxing activities instead of scrolling through your device
  • Model a healthy routine for your children and set boundaries around their activities
  • Bring soothing aspects of nature into your sleeping environment by checking in with your senses – what can I see, hear, touch, smell that is calming and is associated with rest and sleep

Whatever you do, don’t give up too quickly. Stick at it because it can take a while to see the results. We know that even when you implement a new healthy habit, it can take a few weeks or months for it to really kick in.

Download the free printable!

improve your sleepI’ve created a handy hint sheet for you to use to remind you about all the actions you can take to improve your sleep by using the outdoors.

When you click on the image you’ll be taken to the RESOURCES tab on my website where you’ll find this handy hint sheet, along with many other printables which are free for you to download and print for your own use.

Listen to the audio version of this blog on the podcast!

As I write this blog post, our “Outdoors is my Therapy” podcast listeners are growing in number every day. I have many fabulous topics planned for the podcast including some interviews and stories about outdoor adventures.

I’d love to know if you have a topic about the outdoors that you’d love to hear more about. You can let me know via Facebook, Instagram or email. And join the Outdoors is my Therapy Facebook Group for plenty of inspiring chat and photos about the outdoors.

Daisy SpokeDiscovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in ‘Daisy Spoke’ that inform, inspire and empower women to a healthy and active lifestyle.

Physical Activity and Exercise: What’s stopping you?

When it comes to physical activity and exercise, we all know it’s good for us, but there are plenty of things that can get in the way. I wonder …..what are the obstacles that get in your way of being active?  

Is it time? Money? Health? Weather? Tiredness? Maybe you want an exercise buddy? You don’t know what’s around or how to get started? You have caring responsibilities for other people? Or perhaps you’re worried you’ll be the slowest, most uncoordinated, oldest, or the only one without the latest trendy gear? Maybe pain or worry about medical issues is an issue?

There are so many things that can stop us even before we get started, or that get in the way of keeping the momentum going. It’s one thing to know that physical activity and exercise is good for us, and it’s definitely another thing to actually get out there and do it.

Move Your Large Muscles

The evidence is rock solid – no matter where you live, how old you are, or what your cultural background is. One of the best things you can do for yourself, family and community is to get moving. This means doing activities that use your larger muscle groups. I’m talking here about movements that involve your whole legs and whole arms or your whole body, so if you think that shuffling that pack of cards or pressing PLAY on your remote is considered movement, then you’re simply cheating yourself and your health.

Large muscle movement also means you’ll use more energy, something that’s pretty challenging when you feel tired. I know it sounds illogical, but when you’re tired, you generally feel better if you get up and move, or better still, do some exercise (see below) because movement and the right intensity of exercise can ‘give’ you energy.

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re moving because of work tasks, home activities, for leisure or for transport. Simply moving instead of sitting, standing or lying down for long periods reduces your risk of developing certain non-communicable diseases including depression, and poorer general health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published recommendations about physical activity to improve the health of the world’s population. These recommendations have been developed after comprehensively examining hundreds and hundreds of studies from all round the globe. Many countries, including Australia, have used these recommendations to write up specific guidelines to help us get more active. It makes sense from an economic as well as a health and wellbeing perspective to get moving.

The Australian Guidelines for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour

The Australian Guidelines for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour state that we should aim to:

  • Accumulate 2 ½ to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity (this takes some effort but you can still talk while moving) or 1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours of vigorous intensity physical activity (this takes more effort and you will be breathing faster – huffing and puffing), or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week. (The everyday-easy-to-understand-version of this is 30 – 60 minutes of exercise per day depending on intensity!)

  • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.

  • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.

  • Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. Start by doing something, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.

  • Minimise the amount of time spent sitting and break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

  • The guidelines now also include recommendations for children over a 24 hour period which includes sleep and activity routines.

Exercise vs Movement 

If you’re ready to take your general moving and grooving up a notch and reap added health benefits, then an exercise plan will help you to structure your physical activity to reach your health or fitness goals. Basically, exercise is a routine of physical activity with the purpose of improving one or more aspects of fitness, for example, strength, aerobic capacity, endurance, flexibility. And it’s amazing how a bit of huffing and puffing each day can improve your mood as well as your general health! But don’t go it alone. There are a number of health professionals who can support you towards improved health and mood so you reduce the risk of injury, sickness and low motivation.

Invite others onto your support team!

Your doctor

If you have any health, injury or medical issues you are concerned about, please check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Once approved, you can also ask for a referral to an exercise physiologist or exercise scientist, or you can refer yourself. Your doctor can also help you access help for respite (if you are a carer) and other services that will help you to get more active.

Exercise physiologists and exercise scientists

Exercise physiologists and exercise scientists have trained at university level to support people to get more active, and many of them specialise in working with people with medical issues. Most health funds provide a rebate for consultations, or you may be eligible to access a Medicare rebate or even fully funded consultations with a referral from your GP if you are eligible.

Personal trainers

Personal trainers usually have Certificate or Diploma level qualifications to provide exercise programs to help you reach your fitness goals. You can find personal trainers at many recreation centres and gyms, as well as self-employed in the community.

Group exercise & exercise buddies

Exercising with other people can be very motivating for a lot of us. Being able to socialise whilst moving can make it more enjoyable. Many recreation centres including swimming pools and gyms offer group exercise classes. Have a look for a class that is appropriate for your health needs and fitness goals. If you’re unsure, ask at the centre. Recreation centres and other fitness organisations can benefit from your feedback as it helps them to develop programs and classes to meet the local need. Don’t forget, you can also create your own opportunities for group exercise (or general movement) by asking a friend to go walking with you, have a round of golf, do some gardening or housework together, or walk to your favourite cafe for a cuppa and back home again.

The best advice is to move more, sit less

So remember, no matter what’s getting in the way of movement (that is, your physical activity and exercise), there are people here to help you. You are the captain of your own ship, and you can invite anyone onto your team. Remember that ‘something is better than nothing’ and you can gradually build up from ‘something’ to more and more. The main point is that simply by moving more and sitting less, you’re being kind to yourself and reducing your health risks. So keep moving, just keep moving, and gradually work your way to better health.

Daisy Spoke

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in ‘Daisy Spoke’ that inform, inspire and empower women to a healthy and active lifestyle.

3 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Younger

Daisy Spoke Banner

Do you know what drives me to do the work I do with groups of women and health professionals? It’s the fact that there are so many things I wish I’d known when I was younger – things that could have made a difference to my life and to my happiness if I’d known about them, made sense of them, and felt confident implementing them in my own life.

Being stuck in anxiety, sadness or anger stops many people from living truly satisfying and fulfilling lives. With many years of working in the mental health industry as well my own personal experiences, I feel an unstoppable drive to keep moving forwards, to keep expanding my reach to build up people’s knowledge and skills, to make a difference in the world with as many people as I can. My mission is to share information and inspiration that empowers women towards a genuine and deep sense of wellness. And by doing this the ripple effect will have an even greater impact.

Wild yellow flowers

Today I’m sharing with you 3 things I wish I’d known when I was younger.

1. Exercise is the only magic pill

KW MTB selfieDaily exercise and general physical activity are crucial elements of feeling good. Just as some people might need to diligently take medication every day, I need to exercise every day. Exercise is nature’s way of stimulating the hormones which aid concentration, problem-solving, sleep, digestion, and mood. This daily dose of exercise rebalances our body’s systems resulting in wide-ranging benefits that no single medication can provide. The research is absolutely clear that regular medium to high intensity exercise can have a profound effect on health AND happiness.

What types of physical activity and exercise do you prefer? I’ve always loved bushwalking, and in more recent years I’ve become really enthusiastic about mountain biking. I call mountain biking my ‘parallel universe’ because it not only provides me with a very regular dose of fun exercise, family time and social interaction, but I’ve also learned the most amazing life lessons from it including managing fears, growing resilience, and developing mindfulness.

2. Get sleep savvy

Awake owl
Credit: source unknown

Sleep is vital for optimal brain function including mood management. Quality sleep restores the mind and body. It improves concentration, problem-solving, reaction time, capacity to think clearly, organise ourselves, plan, learn … and the list just goes on. But getting a good sleep is easier said than done for some of us. There are many skills to getting a good sleep and there are many things you can control when you understand how sleep works. So, the lesson here is to educate yourself about sleep – sleep cycles, circadian rhythms, body clocks, and sleep hygiene. The most common helpful strategies include exercise (especially in the morning), exposure to early morning light (this resets the body clock so you start to feel sleepy in the evening), reduce caffeine (especially in the afternoon) and learn relaxation and stress management skills. Another vital strategy here is to learn about AND practice mindfulness – every day (not just when you have trouble sleeping). Which leads straight into my 3rd tip!

3. Mind your mind

Don't believe everything you thinkMinds are such complex things! They wield a lot of power over our emotions and our actions (including sleep). But unless you notice what’s going on in your mind, and choose how much power to give it, your thoughts, assumptions and beliefs will control you instead of the other way around. The habit of being hooked by thoughts or strongly attached to them is limiting and anxiety-provoking. The key here is to begin by simply noticing what is happening in your mind, and by doing this with curiosity and without judgement. The power is in the noticing. You’ll collect all sorts of interesting bits of information about how your mind works, what thinking patterns it gets locked into, what beliefs and assumptions are behind it all, and how all of this impacts your physiology, your behaviours and your emotions. One of my favourite sayings is “Don’t believe everything you think!” because we can learn to stand back, notice the thought and choose whether to believe it, or not.

Let's sum up!

So there you have it. The 3 key pieces of information I wish I’d known (and understood, and implemented) when I was younger!

1. Exercise is the only magic pill

2. Get sleep savvy

3. Mind your mind

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Daisy Spoke aka Kathryn Walton logoKathryn Walton shares information and reflections in Daisy Spoke that connect, inspire and self-empower women to make healthy choices for themselves. She integrates her love of physical exercise, family, nature, gardening and creative arts with her professional background in mental health social work to facilitate change with individuals, groups and communities of women who are committed to living life to the full.