The Nature Fix: Overcoming Barriers to the Outdoors

It’s really cold on the East Coast as I write this. The temperature this morning was 12 degrees. I didn’t want to get out of bed, much less venture to the woods on my usual dog walk. But my dog is part husky, and she lives for the cold. She nudged her black nose against my leg and looked at me with those big eyes, one pale blue. That’s the eye that says husky. I sighed, pulled on two layers of winter pants, two coats and my ski mittens and padded out the door. Surprises were everywhere. The canal near my house was mostly frozen over, creating mesmerizing concentric and oblong patterns sometimes called cat ice. Around here, in Washington, D.C., it’s a rare and spectacular sight. A red-tailed hawk cawed at me from high in a bare tree. The hawk wasn’t so happy that I had arrived, but I was. It was a magical walk.

We all have loads of excuses for not going outside: too cold, too hot, too buggy. We are too busy, too tired, too fearful, too unconvinced of our own fortitude or skill or fitness or cultural connection to the outdoors. The psychological barriers are perhaps the most challenging, and the ones that keep us most consistently inside.

A survey of 12,000 Americans last year found more than half of adults reported spending five hours or less in nature each week. Minority groups and young adults faced more barriers to being in nature than other groups, such as living farther away from high quality green space and lacking transportation to get there. The good news is that most of the people surveyed wanted to spend more time in nature, and they supported community programs and organizations that could help them do it, including curated experiences in parks, gardens, schools and zoos.

Vanessa Garrison, the founder of GirlTrek, a national nonprofit and REI partner, is familiar with the common excuses we use to stay indoors. Her organization galvanizes African American women to form walking and hiking groups and to pledge to get outside for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Among the deep (and perfectly reasonable) excuses she often hears is that the women are busy taking care of everyone else’s needs first, that they may feel self-consciously out of shape, and that their neighborhoods often don’t feel safe or inviting to walk in.

Garrison and her team leaders have so successfully challenged these notions since 2010 that GirlTrek now boasts 100,000 members, with more signing on every month. Team leaders remind women that the health of their families depends on the women themselves being healthy, and that they will feel more energetic if they are fit and take time for themselves. Through GirlTrek’s scheduled group outings, they create a safe environment and they seek out beautiful places to hike, from city parks to the Shenandoah to the Rocky Mountains. Most important of all, they tell the women they can do it. Garrison reminds them that Harriet Tubman walked to freedom, that walking is part of their culture and their path to liberation. Attending a GirlTrek hike is part pep rally, part social movement. You want to be a part of it.

“The solution lies wholly within our community,” says Garrison. “We have everything we need as black women to move ourselves and our families to better health regardless of everything we’re up against.”

As to overcoming common emotional barriers like fear, experts such as Los Angeles-based sports psychologist Michael Gervais recommend some time-tested techniques. If you find yourself in a situation that feels a little over your head, perched at the top of a ski chute for example, try to reframe it as exciting and adventurous, rather than fearsome. Focus on slowing your breathing and being present in the moment rather than being anxious about what might happen next. Maybe hum a song, open up to a buddy, and enjoy the feel of the sun and the wind and the strength in your body.

And try to start small. Finding a community of people with similar outdoor interests helps. Lots of local groups are forming all the time, from Hike it Baby for moms and small children to outings on Meetup. Start with a short, nearby adventure and go from there. Cultivating local, more familiar experiences can help build a bridge to deeper immersions in wilder and more adventurous settings farther away. And starting young helps too; help your kids feel comfortable in nature now so they will have the gift of that connection the rest of their lives. This is why school, summer and family programs—ones that reflect the diversity of values in our communities—can help raise resilient adults who also care about protecting the natural world. Even when it’s cold, or hot, or a little buggy.

There are no excuses left.

And remember my favorite mantra: Go outside, go often, breathe.

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