Editor’s note: REI Co-op is investing $1 million in the Outdoor Foundation, the charitable arm of Outdoor Industry Association, to support the Thrive Outside program, designed to help young people’s social, emotional and academic development through the outdoors. REI has supported the Foundation’s efforts since its founding in 2000.
Those of us who bike, hike, camp, climb, fish or paddle on a regular basis know, at least anecdotally, that outdoor recreation is good for our bodies and our psyche. New scientific research aims to prove empirically that time spent outside in nature can make us happier and healthier. The hypothesis: Time in nature provides benefits of improved mental health, reduced depression, reduced anxiety and stress, improved social connection, and, if recreating outdoors, improved physical health. And the benefits of time spent outdoors can extend beyond individuals. According to the Outdoor Recreation Economy report, outdoor businesses and amenities are a powerful and sustainable economic driver.
Unfortunately getting outside to a park or trail is no longer the norm for most people in the United States. Fewer than 18 percent of Americans recreate outside once per week, and less than 50 percent report getting outside even once per year, according to The Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Participation Report which surveys 22,000 Americans annually about their outdoor activities. We also know that outdoor activity participation does not mirror the overall demographics of our country. According to the 2018 Outdoor Participation Report, people who report they get outside skew more male (54%), older (65% older than 25 years old) and more white/Caucasian (74%) than the general U.S. population.
The barriers to the outdoors vary: For some people, it’s competing priorities, and for others, it’s lack of knowledge (where to go, what to do, what gear to take and how to use it). And for far too many people, the biggest barrier is a perceived lack of belonging. We can—and we must—change that. We all belong outside and everyone can thrive outside.
The Outdoor Foundation has long been a leader in collecting data about who goes outside and how often. Over the past seven years, we partnered with brands to make small grants to local and national organizations that provide outdoor experiences for people. We have to step up our efforts because, with the onset of screen time and continuing urbanization, the trends continue to move in a troubling direction.
We now recognize that getting a child outside for a few hours a few times per year can provide benefits to a child’s mental and physical well-being, but it is not as likely to create a long-term connection to the outdoors or the health benefits of regular time outside. We also know that individual organizations aren’t likely to reach enough people often enough to make an impact nationwide. This is a problem that requires scale.
That’s why the Outdoor Foundation and its leading partners—including REI, Patagonia, Thule and The VF Foundation—are on a renewed mission to connect not just individuals, but entire communities to the outdoors and to inspire a nationwide outdoor habit.
Our research reveals that 63 percent of people in the U.S. who report getting outside—whether it’s once a year or once a week—do so within 10 miles of their house. The data from the Outdoor Foundation supports creating close-to-home networks of organizations and leaders: Working at the community level to create safe, fun and repeatable outdoor experiences for families and communities is the best strategy for making the outdoors a habit for everyone living in America.
To that end, the Foundation and our brand partners will be investing in a community-based approach. We’ll start with strategic and focused investments in a few pilot “Thrive Outside Communities.” We are in the process of choosing up to four pilot locations that are diverse in geography and demographics. Our investments will support community-based organizations as well as national partners working in those communities. Funds will be used to increase the ability of a network of diverse organizations to work together to get more kids outside more often and engage their families and communities to increase the likelihood of long-term engagement. Our hope is to scale quickly as more outdoor brands, other corporations, foundations, civic leaders and individuals join us in making long-term commitments through collaborative networks. Our goal is to double the number of participating communities every two years and to share what works—and what doesn’t—with hundreds of communities through our partner brands and networks.
We will do this through strategic alliances with existing nonprofit organizations and government agencies that provide outdoor experiences and, with other partners such as local YMCAs, Scouting organizations, and Boys and Girls Clubs that work with kids, families and communities. For those groups, getting outdoors may or may not be a primary driver, but it could be a valuable tool for achieving their goals of community development, youth development, job-skill acquisition or improved health outcomes.
We didn’t become an indoor species overnight, and it will take more partners and more time to reconnect us with our outdoor habit. It will require conducting strong research and sharing it with community partners, and it will take a commitment from local communities. The Outdoor Foundation and our partners are fueling a movement to ensure that people from all walks of life thrive outside. REI’s call to action to #OptOutside is amplifying the message and the movement, and we are proud to have REI as a lead partner. Please join us as we encourage everyone to #OptOutside and #ThriveOutside.
Learn more about the Outdoor Foundation and #ThriveOutside.