One day about 10 years ago, I saw on my calendar a rare Saturday with nothing to do. My wife and kids would be gone and I was caught up on work. I asked a friend of mine, a co-worker at Sporting News named Ryan Fagan, who was always telling amazing stories of his outdoor adventures, to take me on a day trip.
He agreed, and that day changed my life.
He picked me up before dawn, and we spent the day hiking and fishing in North Carolina’s Linville Gorge, which I know now is one of the most rugged places on the East Coast. I might not have gone had I known how rugged it was. A half dozen times, I almost fell and broke myself to pieces. But I survived.
Fagan pushed and pulled me so far out of my comfort zone that I was high on endorphins all day. We stopped at a gas station on the way home. I reached in the cooler to grab a Coke, and it occurred to me that I had not thought about work all day, which was incredible because we were co-workers and usually talked about either office politics or our stories all the time.
But on this day, our focus shifted to what was around us. To paraphrase Scott M. O’Neil’s book title, we were where our feet were. I grabbed the Coke, closed the cooler, turned around and told Ryan I had not thought about work all day.
“Now do you understand why I do this so much?” he said.
I did. Since then, he has become my outdoor mentor. With him at first and later on my own, I have pursued outdoor fun as often as I can. I have become an avid hiker and bicycler and an advocate of trying every outdoor adventure at least once.
Just as Fagan wanted to share his love of the outdoors with me, I want to share mine with you. I want you to get out of the outdoors what I have, even if it’s only a small taste.
I could write 100 stories about how good I feel at the end of a hike or long bike ride or talk for hours about how many great ideas I get deep in the woods. But that’s just my own personal experience. It’s the science behind health and the outdoors that should make you shut off your computer, go outside and let the sun bathe you in its glory or the rain wash you of your anxiety.
The health benefits are wide-ranging. Being exposed to the sun increases your vitamin D, which is important for bones, blood cells and the immune system. WebMD says as little as five to 15 minutes, two or three times a week, is enough to gain the benefits.
According to Bicycling, a new study shows “being outside actually increases the grey matter volume in the right dorsolateral–prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is a part of the brain associated with executive functions like working memory, planning and selective attention.”
A study by researchers at Cornell found that as few as 10 minutes in a natural setting helped decrease physical and mental stress in college students. The benefits came even if the students merely sat on a park bench. A study published in International Journal of Environmental Health Research drew similar conclusions about the wider population.
There are as many paths to finding a passion for the outdoors as there are people with that passion. How can you get started if you don’t have a friend like Ryan to guide you? I asked experts for tips.
Take a walk.
“That might be a hike at a nearby nature preserve, a walk around the block, or a stroll through the city,” says Ginny Yurich, who runs 1000 Hours Outside with her husband. Their effort to get us away from screens and under the sun has been featured on The Today Show, OutsideOnline.com and others. “Nature is everywhere, ‘coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk’ as Scott Sampson says in How to Raise a Wild Child. No matter where you are, if you just step outside, the sights, sounds, smells and textures of nature will greet you.”
Find like-minded locals.
Just about every city will have groups full of people who want to share their passion. They’re easy to find. Check Facebook, online message boards, even old school paper-and-tack message boards at coffee shops. “Meetup.com and other social network sites have local groups who organize hikes and outdoor activities,” says Jason Bocarro, a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. “They can also be specialized (based on gender, age, beginner). This can also afford you the opportunity to meet new friends as well as get outside, and often the hikes are set, so no need to plan.”
Get to know the places in your community.
“No matter where you live, your community likely has parks, trails, beaches or other outdoor amenities,” says Kyle Rich, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. “Unfortunately, we tend to overlook these places if they aren’t involved in our day-to-day routines. Look for local recreation amenities and resources (e.g., websites, leisure guides, community organization directories, etc.). These are often designed to connect people to all sorts of local opportunities. Then, make a point to visit a new place or connect with a new group—even if it involves going a little out of your way. You never know where you will find your new routine, spark a new interest or find a place you fall in love with.”
Do inside tasks outside.
“Asking oneself throughout the day if what you are currently doing indoors could be done outdoors is a good start,” says Rich Christiana, associate professor in the department of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University. “There are so many great ways to spend more time outdoors even while working, such as attending Zoom meetings outdoors, having in-person ‘walking meetings’ on the local greenway or outdoor track, or having lunch or a snack break outdoors. And of course, many exercises that a person may do indoors can be done outdoors.”
Try outdoor photography.
This comes from Tara Schatz, a blogger at Back Road Ramblers whose “goal is to help people connect with the world and each other by stepping out of their front doors and embarking on journeys big and small.”
You’ll take your phone with you regardless, right? “During the pandemic, I challenged myself to take a different type of outdoor photograph every day and then share it with my friends and family, just for fun,” Schatz says. “I photographed flowers in my garden, beautiful sunsets and waterfalls. At the end of a month of taking photos, my images had improved dramatically and I had a new appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. Photography is also a great way to channel your creativity and explore new places.”
Photo by @leggybirdphotos