Being outdoors – and I don’t just mean stepping out your front door – is a cure-all drug that can prolong your life, make you healthier, happier and even more creative. And most people of color in America have not had access to this drug because of something I call the “accidental conspiracy.”
While we’ve had to fight more visible fights, for example, against discrimination, poverty and, even, being killed by police, much of the majority U.S. population, because of class, income and leisure time factors, among others, has taken for granted its access to the outdoors and the many resulting physical and mental health benefits.
You can live longer by engaging in outdoor activities. Just a cursory Web search yields beau coup, scientifically supported gains:
- managing weight.
- controlling blood pressure.
- decreasing risk of heart attack.
- boosting ―good cholesterol.
- lowering risk of stroke.
- reducing risk of breast cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
- avoiding need for gallstone surgery.
- protecting against hip fracture.
- preventing depression, colon cancer, constipation, osteoporosis, and impotence.
- lowering stress levels.
- relieving arthritis and back pain.
- strengthening muscles, bones, and joints.
- improving sleep.
- elevating overall mood and sense of well-being.
- increasing attention span.
- boosting creativity.
Many of these are not direct benefits, but the result of chains of inter-related factors. The most obvious example: Add all those up, and you come up with a longer, better life.
But take “protecting against hip fracture.” If you hike regularly, you boost bone density because you are undertaking a weight-bearing exercise. You also will build strength in the muscles in your hips and legs, strengthen your core and improve your balance. It adds up to helping avoid a hip fracture, the risk of which increases with age because of decreasing bone density and balance, and increasing frailty. See how that works?
Toss in the fact that you will burn 250-500 calories per hour while hiking, then you can add in controlling weight, blood pressure and more.
Sure, you could get some of this by walking to work or even just the bus stop every day. But you could drive an hour or two, get out of your car and drink in nature for an hour and get more benefits.
Start with just the increased sunshine and fresher air. But being in nature, in the backcountry or wilderness, also unplugs you from technology and connects you with yourself in a way that brings a sense of peace and well-being. The landscapes found in nature – the trees, water elements, peaks and shores – are familiar queues that speak to the history and very essence of our humanity.
Mixing in some hiking, creating the most powerful, life-affirming and -enhancing drug possible, isn’t as difficult as you might think. Hiking can be like playing sports, but less stressful to the body, in that it doesn’t feel like exercise. When I was virtually obsessed with basketball, I never said I was going to “work out,” I said I was going to “play.”
Plus, with its differing tasks and challenges, changing landscapes and destinations, hiking also makes your “workout” different each time, so more interesting, therefore keeping you more motivated.
If you are a person of color, chances are no one told you any of this. It wasn’t part of your schooling, or burned into your culture. So you aren’t passing the need for being outdoors to your kids, and they won’t do so with theirs. I don’t believe this started with a purpose, the way people, say, started hiring on the basis of skin color. That’s why I call it an “accidental conspiracy.” It just came to be, and now is damn near institutionalized. Just check out the way the outdoors are portray by the media and retailers. See many of us there?
That’s changing. The vastly white environmental and conservation ecosystem is aging and concerned about losing its legacy. Retailers are mindful of an emerging, non-white majority population that lacks much of a relationship with the outdoors. People of color are being invited “back” to something that was theirs in the first place.
It’s time to claim not only parks and trails, but a longer, healthier and happier life.