Since the onset of COVID, we’ve continually been reminded of several lessons we all learned in elementary school, like the importance of washing our hands and staying home if we feel unwell. However, we’ve learned some new, much more challenging lessons as well. Lessons that taught us how to support our friends and family when we can’t be around them, and how to avoid activities that were previously part of our health and wellness routines.
Whether that was going to the gym or yoga class, watching a movie with friends or playing on a sports team, most of us have had to learn how to fill some gaping holes in our mental and physical health practices. During this past year, many of us turned and continue to turn to the outdoors. Below are five reasons we should keep going outside, whether as part of our COVID habits, new year’s resolutions or routines that will outlast the pandemic.
1. Expanding the Office and Classroom
For those working or attending school from home, the outdoors offers us more rooms in our house. Calling into a meeting from a lawn chair provides fresh scenery, preventing us from spending all day working in the places we used to associate with family and rest. Going for a walk on a lunch break gets the blood flowing, stimulating creativity and fresh thought patterns. Leaving the four walls behind can also give us a break from those we’re living with. A relief we all need as we’re pulled between the roles of partner, teacher, employee, supervisor, parent, cook and friend.
2. A Safer Place to Exercise
For those of us who formerly exercised indoors with others, at gyms, pools, on teams and in classes, we had to re-evaluate our health choices due to the risk of virus transmission. Moving our exercise outside allowed some of us to continue our routines in new spaces, while others had to pick up new activities to fill the place of those on hold.
Over the span of months, those who have access to outdoor spaces have been able to build new habits that provide consistency and predictability in a world where much is still in flux. For some of us, the pandemic forced a re-prioritization in our lives, giving time to activities previously on the back burner or the bottom half of the list we never got to. For me, being at home the majority of the time provided more opportunities in the daytime hours to exercise outside.
3. A Way to Socialize and See Others
While they may be briefer especially in colder weather, by wearing masks and social distancing we can minimize risk and see those we care about more safely in the outdoors. If everyone is on the same page regarding COVID guidelines leading up to the interaction, we can meet new people outside and have new experiences together—like going on an Outward Bound course.
A wilderness expedition reminds us that most things you do indoors, you can approximate outdoors in the woods. From baking bread to painting your toenails to reading a book with a hot cup of tea—all are possible. The right clothes are essential to making the experience enjoyable, and in those dark moments when it seems we can’t do anything anymore, it’s time to bundle up and reach out to a trusted friend for a walk in the park, a campfire or just to sit and talk, socially distant, on the porch.
4. New Experiences
In a year when many of us canceled vacations, put hobbies on hold and avoided events, the outdoors offered us the chance for adventure close to home. My family discovered a web of old roads and trails, partially mapped and poorly signed. They offered us days of exploration and discovery ten minutes from home. Going somewhere new and facing the unknown felt rare and refreshing and reminded me that an outdoor adventure doesn’t have to include the state’s highest peak or most camera-worthy vista (and the potential crowds those include.)
Challenge and adventure are good for our brains, and for many of us outdoor enthusiasts, we use it as a healthy outlet and a way to achieve thrills, adrenaline and the joy that comes from novelty. We had to give up some of those opportunities this year as we stayed closer to home, but thankfully, exploring more deeply in our local spots can fill some of those gaps and craving for adventure.
5. Sanctuary, Control and Release
Less tangible than the health effects of walking or running every day, spending time outside provides crucial mental and emotional health benefits. When formerly mundane tasks feel dangerous and risk-laden, simply being outside in a quiet spot in the sunshine can provide sanctuary, a moment to let your guard down, breath and time to take in the surroundings. It can also be a familiar place when the rest of the world seems to be changing rapidly, or a place separate from the news—a temporary refuge.
Moving through the woods or across a lake also gives me a chance to be in control of certain risks and to manage my own safety. The simple act of assessing the safest way across an icy ledge, packing extra warm layers for a ridge top, or the feeling of my PFD (personal flotation device) hugging me tightly reminds me that I can control aspects of my health and safety when other elements seem so far out of my control.
Of course, spending time outside also forces us to practice being at peace with things out of our control, like the weather. If you’ve been on an extended wilderness trip, you know this is a valuable skill in the woods and the frontcountry. The ability to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation, telling jokes through a thunderstorm, makes you a valuable team member—whether if your team’s goal is to travel 100 miles to basecamp or make it through the weekend at home without fighting.
Finding Silver Linings Amidst COVID
At this point in the pandemic, we’re well-practiced at finding silver linings amidst COVID. For some of us, a silver lining or unexpected boon of the pandemic may be obtaining greater physical health and fitness with increased time outside. Additionally, as more people turn to the outdoors and discover their local parks, trails and wild places, they may be inspired to help protect them. We need our natural surroundings now more than ever, and the natural world needs our care and attention.
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About the Author
Renee Igo was an Outward Bound student at age 15 and has been instructing wilderness expeditions for the Voyageur Outward Bound School for the past eight years. When not instructing, she holds a variety of other teaching positions and raises sheep in Maine.
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