Get outside – it’s good for you

June 18, 2013

by Käri Knutson

Photo: Nancy Nicholas Hall

Morning sunlight casts patterned shadows on an outdoor patio and seating area at Nancy Nicholas Hall on June 11, 2013.

Photo: Jeff Miller

You're sitting at your desk looking at a computer, aren't you? One of your legs is asleep and you’re not sure if you’ve blinked in the past hour.  Well, get up. Get outside.

Yes, many of our jobs find us in an office for hours at a time under the glow of fluorescent lights. We look longingly out the window, especially on a beautiful summer day.

“We tend to be a culture these days who is working harder and putting in longer hours,” says UW Health Psychologist Shilagh Mirgain. “That sometimes leads us to be chained to a desk or computer and end up less productive, fatigued and stressed.”

“When we get outside, it helps us clear our minds. It allows us to reboot ourselves – more creative ideas are likely to occur,” Mirgain adds.

It’s true – even a short break can have benefits. Fortunately, campus planners are creating a growing number of options for a quick walk during a break, outdoor meeting space or lunch al fresco.

Photo: Aldo’s

With the patio doors to Aldo’s Cafe wide open, graduate student Madeline Schatzberg works on her laptop computer while enjoying a snack outside the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Byron Lichstein, clinical associate professor at the Wisconsin Law School, and Meredith Ross, clinical professor emerita at the Wisconsin Law School, had the new balcony of the School of Education all to themselves while enjoying some iced coffee, conversation and a view of Lake Mendota.

 “I’m a nature lover,” Lichstein says. “I just love the peacefulness of looking out at the natural world. It’s good for your mental health. It stimulates creativity.”

The two try making outdoor “meetings” a habit.

“You don’t get interrupted,” Ross says.

Ross first came to campus in 1978 and worked in the Helen C. White Building in an office without windows. She’s seen campus expand its outdoor options, something she thinks is good for everyone.

 “It’s nice to get out even if it’s for just an hour,” Ross says. “You can spend your whole day inside.”

The variety and number of outdoor spots on campus is no accident.

“We have indeed been making a more conscious effort to create more useable outdoor spaces for impromptu, passive gathering areas all across campus,” says Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture.

While everyone knows about Memorial Union Terrace, have you seen the beautiful Abby L. Marlatt Rock Garden and Euthenics Oak at the School of Human Ecology’s remodeled Nancy Nicholas Hall? You should.

Photo: Liz Waters

Solitude is found amid empty patio chairs and tables at an outdoor courtyard behind Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall. While the residential building appears closed for the summer months, the location remains a peaceful, wooded gem hidden in the middle of campus.

Photo: Jeff Miller

If you want to people watch, Union South is a great option. But if you’re looking for summer solitude, visit the outdoor plaza behind Elizabeth Waters Hall. You don’t hear traffic. You don’t hear construction – just the light hum of an air conditioner in one of the windows and birds chirping in the background.

Outdoor options are numerous, and even if you’ve worked on campus for years, chances are there’s some place new waiting to be discovered.

“They offer a small respite from the busy days on campus and provide a great space for people to come together to share ideas outside the classroom and their offices,” Brown says. “We’ve been trying to do this on all our new buildings and in updating our existing buildings

During the winter, we spend enough time indoors. This is the perfect time to take advantage of no-parka weather.

Hour after hour in front of a computer can lead to carpal tunnel, neck pain and headaches, Mirgain says.

“If we are in one position for too long, we are prone to having more stress on our body, being less productive and our energy can start to tank,” Mirgain says.

You’re too busy though. Or are you?

Mirgain says even a “micro” break of two minutes is helpful. Perhaps not enough time to get outside but long enough for some helpful stretching. She suggests aiming for a micro break every hour.

Photo: Medical Sciences Center

A hidden courtyard at the Medical Sciences Center is tucked within the many wings of the southeast corner of the building and located near the basement-level Badger Market deli.

Photo: Jeff Miller

“It can help us refocus,” Mirgain say. “If you stare at something for too long, eventually it can lead to fatigue and you’re more prone to mistakes.”

Top Spots from Inside UW readers

Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of the many great outdoor spots campus offers. A few suggestions of less obvious places:

  • “Tucked between the Red Gym and Pyle Center is a little oasis of peace… Green lawn, raised beds of vegetable and flowers, maintained by the Pyle Center. Tables, chairs and umbrellas provide a quiet spot for relaxation or a lunch break.” -- Martha Querin-Schultz, university service associate, International Student Services
  • Washburn Observatory Lawn
  • “Among my favorites are the native plant garden beneath the huge oak tree on Linden Drive between Van Hise and Human Ecology (Nancy Nicholas Hall); the overlook at Muir Knoll (beneath the shade of those tamaracks!); the old stone bench encircling the maple tree behind Ag Hall; the grassy green of Camp Randall Memorial Park; and the Botany Garden.” -- Mary Mercier , student services coordinator, Division of Continuing Studies
  • “My favorite spot is the Botany Garden adjacent to Lathrop Hall. I love eating lunch in the gazebo on the marble bench. You can hear the water feature in the fish pond near by. And, if I am lucky in late summer, I can enjoy an apple from the nearby apple tree. If I don’t have time for lunch, I try to walk through the garden to enjoy the smells of spring and summer.” -- Dawn Crim, associate dean for external relations, School of Education
  • Third floor of the Student Activity Center at 333 E. Campus Mall
  • Botany Garden, where you’ll find an apple tree in that is a descendant of famous Newton Apple tree.
  • Birge Greenhouses
  • Education Building terrace, both main floor and third floor
  • The Robert E. Gard Storyteller’s Circle
  • Pyle Center rooftop and ground level terrace in back near Red Gym
  • Mosse Humanities Building inner courtyard
  • Union South main plaza, plus small nooks to upper level south and northwest corner.
  • Plaza area between Biochemical Sciences Building and Biochemistry Building
  • Plaza area between Microbial Sciences and Hiram Smith Hall
  • The council ring north and east of Liz Waters Residence Hall.
  • The Maquina Fountain and Sculpture at Engineering Mall.
  • The Healing Garden west of the Health Science Learning Center -- near the UW Hospital and the Wisconsin Institute for Medical Research; both sides of the Boxer Connection (north and south)
  • North plaza and patio at DeJope Residence Hall & Dining Facility