By Matt Stone
Here we go again. Another one of those boring posts about outdoor recreation and health. If I’ve learned anything from blogging over the years, it’s that most people don’t give a flying rat’s ass about any connections between outdoor recreation and health. I mean, when I posted 10 Health Reasons to Spend Time Outdoors last summer, I sniffed my armpits trying to figure out why everyone immediately scattered the moment it went live. Do I offend?
Yep, people want to hear about some magic supplement or diet that will enable them to sit around doing nothing, staring into the electronic devices they are fatally attracted to for endless hours, and avoid adventure and discomfort at all costs.
Hell, on my last trip into the outdoors, it snowed 9 inches on my tent overnight. The trail was barely visible the next day. I had to cross two ice-water creeks carrying an 8-year old in my arms and 50+ pounds on my back. There was absolutely nothing comfortable or climate-controlled about it. And I had no freaking idea what was going down on Facebook, Twitter, my email, or even my website. Scary I tell ya. I mean, Dr. Oz coulda been contacting me for an appearance on his show and I wouldn’t have known about it! The horror!
But I can’t help reporting honestly. If I didn’t think it was important, I wouldn’t bother to tell you about it, especially in anticipation of it being received with complete and total disinterest.
Every year I try to spend a good amount of time frolicking around in the outdoors. And every time I do it I am amazed andreminded about the physical, emotional, and psychological differences that I experience. But now it’s not just me. The last couple of times I’ve had two others tagging along. Having three to observe instead of just one has shown me the universality of some of these profound differences.
Here are some of the primary differences:
- Less stress… This manifests in many ways. While there is some strain and stress in poor weather, difficult terrain, and stress of the grueling physical variety inherent to many forms of outdoor recreation, mental stress is minimal most of the time. While I’m not that stressed out of a person in general, my mind stays quite busy and frantic at times. Not so in the outdoors. My mind is almost eerily calm most of the time. As many of you know, the health implications of lower stress levels are nearly endless. This is not just hocus pocus either. There are some legitimate studies showing the relationship between outdoor activities and stress reduction. Some other ways stress was reduced include elimination of body image concerns, money worries (the 9-day trip cost $90 for all three of us), work obligations, loud noise, flashing lights/electronics, and many other things inherent to modern life. Interestingly, my girlfriend’s seizure activity has resurfaced the day after we return from a camping trip three straight times now. It is completely nonexistent while outdoors, even without her medication, whether doing grueling physical activity or just lounging around.
- Better mood… Along similar lines, mood is better. Except at the end of a long hike when everyone is tired and/or wet and cold, all of our moods and our ability to coexist peacefully was greatly enhanced over a typical day at home.
- Feeling of fulfillment… While this is an intangible feeling, we all seem to feel it. Conquering physical obstacles, seeing breathtaking and inspiring scenery, and toughing out the elements seem to leave us all feeling very satisfied – a feeling difficult to obtain indoors.
- Lack of muscle soreness… Even though we are working hard outdoors, the only times we have been very sore were always the day after we had spent the first night back in the indoors. It’s as if hard days of hiking only hit us when we slept indoors rather than outdoors, which is to be expected if the idea of Earthing does have the validity some claim it does.
- Better sleep… At home all three of us have the hardest damn time winding down and going to sleep. Electronics are primarily responsible for this in our case. None of us want to pull the plug on the glowing boxes. In the outdoors, we all synchronize with the natural light cycles and get very sleepy at the end of the day, just after sunset. In the indoors I usually lay around thinking about stuff for quite some time before I can drift off. In the outdoors I’m out in minutes, even on off days/no-hiking days (we took two on our recent 9-day backpacking trip).
- Weight loss… Of course, out hiking around and spending the day active, none of which is forced (even days we don’t hike we are all up and doing stuff like fishing and gathering firewood), we all lost weight rapidly. All of our pants were falling off by the end of a week. Of course, if you could see a video of the people in the café I’m sitting in right now in Moab, Utah, you would see the connection between low body fat levels and interest in outdoor recreation. It’s strikingly apparent.
- Decrease in appetite… Interest in food quickly drops. We’ve seen this on every backpacking trip. Try as we might to make the food palatable and calorie dense (Oreo cookies, Ginger snap cookies, chocolate chip pancakes, creamy noodles, etc.), we were all turning our noses at food by the end. Just not that hungry or interested in food.
That’s a small sampling of some of the more major and significant observations we are repeatedly making after long stretches of time in the outdoors. As I’ve mentioned before, the outdoors has always been the refuge I’ve sought for health problems, providing an instant cure for the back pain and asthmatic tendencies that have pestered me off and on since my teens.
Although time outdoors means and is perceived differently by different people, and is therefore a difficult topic to study, here is a good, reference-heavy piece featuring some of the more academic attempts to establish a connection between health and the great outdoors (the place, not the movie). Have fun not reading it either.