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I write about outdoor recreation because I love being outside, and because I believe in the value and power of spending time in the natural world. It’s not just me and the millions of others who enjoy playing outside though — scientists have started paying attention to the physical and mental health benefits of adventure and outdoor recreation. What we’ve learned is that connecting with nature, even in small ways, can significantly improve our quality of life. It’s true; outdoor recreation improves lives.
So why aren’t more people doing it?
Stressful Times Call for Pleasant Measures
A survey conducted in 2018 indicated that American workers feel pressured into not taking their vacation time. They feel that it could hurt their standing at work, or that they simply have too much to do. 21 percent of workers left more than five earned vacation days unused. That’s a shame, not only because workers earn those days off, but also because taking vacations makes them better workers. Some workers even feel pressured to work through their lunch breaks, which reduces their job performance. Hell, I once worked for a company that didn’t allow breaks — even though the state of Illinois requires them by law. I’ve earned vacation time at only one of the jobs I’ve ever worked. This is the new world for workers.
But you should take your vacations, and your lunch breaks. And if at all possible, you should spend that time outside. We’ve learned that spending time in nature reduces stress while improving attention span, physical fitness, and willpower. We’re not talking week-long backpacking trips either; even a 20 minute hike or walk in the park will help lower the human stress hormone cortisol.
Outdoor Recreation Improves Lives
At its most basic level, outdoor recreation provides the above positive qualities, while also providing exercise. Regular exercise can help you to prevent, or manage, a number of health concerns like stroke, anxiety, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and many types of cancer. It also improves mood, boosts energy, and literally reduces the risk of dying from just about everything. In short, exercise is good for you.
But outdoor recreation yields benefits beyond doing cardio. New research links spending time outdoors to a greater sense of well-being. Those of us who spend a lot of time outdoors won’t be surprised, but the latest research indicates that, “Those who got in two to three hours in nature were about 20 percent more likely to report high overall satisfaction with their lives than those who spent no time outdoors at all.” I’m no scientist, but that’s pretty damn phenomenal.
So, the research indicates that outdoor recreation improves lives — it’s one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health. But even though it’s so damn good for us, turns out we’re not doing as much of it these days. Why the hell is that?
People are quick to point an accusatory finger at smart phones and other devices, but I don’t think we should be so quick to lay the blame on one technological factor. There’s a lot at play — consider the previously mentioned work stress, competing priorities, a greater number of people living and working in areas removed from nature, and barriers to entry that make it difficult, especially for youth and minorities, to get to wilderness and involved in outdoor recreations.
All of this is valid, but I have another thought as to why we’re not enjoying outdoor recreation as much as we should be. While I have no stats or studies to back up my claim, I believe that a lot of people trick themselves out of improving their lives. You may think that sounds silly, but does it sound any more ridiculous than knowing a surefire way to improve your health and quality of life and choosing not to do it?
Why People Don’t Play Outside
I’ve believed that outdoor recreation improves lives long before I looked up the research. Since starting this blog I have worked to help people have microadventures and get active in the great outdoors. In doing this, I’ve run into a lot of people who tell me that they can’t do it. The reasons are almost always strikingly similar. Here are the three most common.
“I don’t have time.”
We all have the same 24 hours every day. We just use them differently. How much time do you spend on social media? Or playing games? Or watching The Office on Netflix again? If you want to prioritize spending time outside, you can cut some of the time you spend doing those things and devote it to going for a hike.
Take your vacation time. You’ve earned it, and should never feel guilty about using it. Don’t check your phone constantly while you’re on vacation either. If the place falls apart in your absence, use that as an opportunity to ask for a raise when you get back. Few companies will work to improve your life the way outdoor recreation will.
Reclaim time you spend on menial tasks. We all use our time doing things that don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. Mow your yard every week? Start doing it every other week and get an extra hour to spend hiking. Stop worrying if your neighbors don’t like it. They’ll get over it. Do you make your bed every morning? If it takes you three minutes, then you’re spending over 18 hours making your bed every year. What else could you be doing with those hours.
Of course, if you like mowing or sleeping in a made bed, don’t let me stop you. Just understand where your time is going.
“I can’t afford it.”
I get it, outdoor gear can get expensive. And in some instances you should spare no expense — I don’t mess around when it comes to safety, so I don’t skimp on climbing gear or any kind of helmet. But the truth is that for a lot of activities, you don’t need great gear to get started. I’ve put together a kit you can buy entirely on Amazon for about $200 that will get you into the wilderness. Is it the best camping kit out there? No, but it has one job — to get you safely exploring as inexpensively as possible. And while it’s not the prettiest or most high tech outfit around, it beats the heck out of the gear I carried 20 years ago as a Scout.
Don’t worry about trying to get the best gear to start with. You can upgrade when money allows. Check out thrift stores, and when you are ready to buy more technical gear, check out discount sites like REI Outlet, Steep & Cheap, The Clymb, and Sierra Trading Post.
You don’t always have to buy gear either. Ask your friends if you can borrow their stuff, or check to see if you can rent from anywhere local. If you have outfitters nearby, that’s a good place to stop and ask. Many colleges and universities have gear rental now, and it’s often pretty nice stuff. You can also rent gear from REI, as well as from online vendors like OutdoorGeek.com.
But nature itself doesn’t cost money. Subtracting the cost of getting to a trailhead, hiking doesn’t cost anything, and you don’t need fancy boots or packs to get started. It’s free to walk through a park or to sit and meditate by a pond. You don’t have to spend money to spend time outside.
“I’m just not an outdoorsy person.”
Okay, fair enough. Maybe outdoor recreation just isn’t for you. But have you really given it a shot? Look I didn’t like the first taste of beer I ever had, and now I love the stuff. Sometimes we need to give things a few chances before deciding they’re not right for us. So if you had a bad experience the first time you went hiking, or the tent flooded on your first camping trip don’t reject the idea outright. One bad experience doesn’t mean that you’ll never enjoy the great outdoors.
And since we know that outdoor recreation improves lives, it certainly behooves us all to give it as much of a chance as possible.
Outdoor Recreation Improves Lives… So Go Outside Already
You can say that you’ll go when you have more time or money, but the truth is that the best time to start is now. The longer you delay, the less likely you will be to actually get up and go. So go today. Remember, we’re not talking about multi-day backpacking trips — although those are awesome and you should consider them — we’re talking about a walk in the park a couple of times a week, and a day hike on the weekend.
We are experiencing a frightening disconnect from the natural world and our place in it, and the best way to rectify that is to spend time in nature. To foster connections in the world around us, and find a sense of belonging in the big ecological system that humanity is only a small part of. Recreating outdoors offers a lot of benefits, but connecting us to the natural world might be the most profound benefit of all.
Connecting to the great outdoors and finding our place in it has the capacity to vastly improve our physical and mental health — and perhaps our spiritual health as well. Outdoor recreation harnesses all of that in an incredibly fun way. It will literally make your life better, so let go of the excuses and start improving your life.
Outdoor recreation improves lives. It makes you healthier, keeps you saner, and it’s fun. In other words — go play outside.