As a child living in rural Herefordshire I spent most of my days outside with other village children, mooching about, climbing trees, newting in the brook and playing endless games of tag. We were a band of happy and healthy children, apart from the annual outbreak of chicken pox, nits or the odd broken arm (falling out of said trees).
Forty years on many people now spend up to 90 per cent of their time indoors. Robbed of natural sunlight they are instead bombarded with artificial light late into the night, most notably blue light from screens. This has a detrimental effect on the body’s circadian rhythms (our natural rhythm of feeling alert during the day and tired at night) which impacts general health and wellbeing, and can lead to poor sleeping habits, low mood and depression.
Sunlight is vital to good physical health too. When it hits your skin, it converts cholesterol into vitamin D, which helps build strong bones and plays a beneficial role in the immune system, even lowering the risk of cancer and cardiovascular conditions.
Being outside in the fresh air has a host of benefits of its own. There is more oxygen outdoors which helps to clear out the lungs and increases the amount of oxygen in the blood. Increased oxygen means the heart doesn’t have to work so hard and therefore heart rate slows and blood pressure lowers. It aids digestion and can help you heal faster. Higher levels of oxygen can make you feel energised and improves concentration and memory function. Because it also promotes serotonin production it can also increase your levels of happiness and reduce anxiety.
Consequently, if you want to feel better in body and mind get outside in the fresh air. This is easier to do in the summer when it is warm, but now in the depths of winter? It’s even more important. January blues, Coronavirus, Lockdowns… If there was ever a time to look after ourselves it’s now.
A great way to enjoy all the benefits of fresh air and natural sunlight, outdoors in this weather, is to harness the heat of an outdoor fire. Sitting around a crackling fire, being warmed and feeling cosy is a perfect solution.
As a species we love fire. You could say it’s in our DNA. This love affair with fire is understandable; it has been instrumental in our evolution. According to Dr Christopher Lynn, a medical and psychological anthropologist, for our prehistoric ancestors, fire would have provided “light to extend the day and illuminate otherwise uninhabitable dark places; heat for cooking previously inedible food, warming bodies at night, and enabling migration into colder climates; a weapon to facilitate mass hunting and stave off predators; and, according to several scholars, social nexus.”
It’s also believed that social skills, cooperation and language evolved around the campfire due to the necessity of maintaining those fires.
What about the benefits of sitting around a fire today? It’s widely accepted that it is relaxing and calming and obviously it allows us to stay outside in otherwise inhospitable conditions. But are there any other health benefits? Research carried out by Dr Lynn, a professor at the University of Alabama, showed that people who were subjected to both the sight and sounds of a hearth fire or campfire experienced a significant drop in blood pressure, which was greater the longer they were exposed to it. He also suggested that “such fireside relaxation may be enhanced in social settings".
So what are you waiting for? NOW is the perfect time to reap the benefits of fresh air, sunlight and a roaring fire. Go outside, take your family with you, light up your fire pit, take a deep breath and let yourself be captivated by the flames.