Opt Outside (#OptOutside) as often as you can to improve your health & outlook

Opt Outside (#OptOutside – promoted by REI for the Friday after Thanksgiving) and National Take a Hike Day (held each year on Nov. 17) are reminders to get outside and enjoy nature.

waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Julie Dodd

This small waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just a 15-minute walk from the Alum Cave Trail parking lot. You don’t have to walk for miles to find the calmness and beauty of nature.

Being outside and in nature should not be a slogan or campaign for just a few select days. That’s a worthy goal for all of us year-round.

  1. Being outdoors is good for your health

If you are someone who enjoys being in the outdoors, you already know what research confirms. Being outdoors is good for your health.

Kevin Loria’s article 12 science-backed reasons you should spend more time outside discusses benefits (complete with research citations) that include helping reduce the risk of cancer, lowering blood pressure, and reducing anxiety and depression.

  1. Being in nature promotes your sense of well-being and creativity

Research studies confirm the benefits of being in nature.

Grand Canyon view - photo by Julie Dodd

Gazing at the Grand Canyon from the South Rim can improve your outlook and promote creativity.

Based on research, being in nature can help adjust your sleep schedule and helps you unplug from all the technology that surrounds you.

Another study of emotions and contact with nature found that being in nature improves your mood.

Businesses that need employees to be creative can improve their creativity by giving employees time outdoors, connecting with nature, research finds.

I bet your personal experience confirms that if you’ve taken a walk in the woods or gone with family or friends for a picnic at the park or have gazed out at the mountains or ocean.

  1. Outdoor experience in nature isn’t just for hard-core mountain men but for all of us.
GSMNP Hike 100 T-shirt

I received a Hike 100 T-shirt for hiking 100 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the Centennial Celebration of the National Park Service. I was pleased to see the logo wasn’t the over-used image of a man hiking solo.

Too often outdoor companies and products have used the visual image of those who are outdoors as solo men perched on lofty mountaintops with hefty backpacks.

I’m encouraged by a new emphasis on the value and fun of being outdoors for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or age.

Latino OutdoorsOutdoor Afro and Women Who Hike  use social media to promote group hikes and nature activities. Both the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts have a core value in encouraging young people to explore nature.

A NPR story about minority populations’ use of the national parks discussed how the national parks are trying to encourage more diversity of park visitors. The story focused on Saguaro National Park, near Tuscon, Arizona, and the effort to encourage more of the area’s Hispanic population to visit the park.

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  1. National and state parks are great resources and should be used, funded and supported.

I admire the foresight and collaboration required for the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, and I applaud the effort and finances over the years that has been involved in creating national and state parks.

Devil's Millhopper stairs - photo by Julie Dodd

The boardwalk in the Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park must be reconstructed after flooding caused by Hurricane Irma.

I am fortunate to live near several state parks. With a drive of less than 20 minutes, I can be hiking, running, cycling or bird watching. I also have been able to make vacation trips to more than a dozen national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Grand Canyon National Park. What treasures the national parks are!

Even once land is set aside for parks and the infrastructure (roads in the park, trails, camping areas, etc.) is completed, funds must be allocated to maintain or restore areas.

Recently, when I recently went to the Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, I found that the wood staircase down into sinkhole was closed due to damage caused by Hurricane Irma. The sinkhole had filled with about 60 feet of water, which destroyed some of the stairs and boardwalk and caused erosion. Replacing the boardwalk and stabilizing the hillside will take several months.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country, with more than 11 million visits in 2016. The National Park Service funds two trail crews that maintain (such as remove fallen trees) the 900 miles of trails in the GSMNP. The Friends of the Smokies, a non-profit that raises money to support GSMNP projects, funds a Trails Forever crew that restores the most-used trails in the park.

  1. Outdoor spaces should be available in neighborhoods
yoga in Margaret Pace Park - photo by Julie Dodd

Margaret Pace Park in Miami was a hub of outdoor activity, including a yoga class.

With all the benefits to health, mood and creativity that being in nature provides, everyone should have the opportunity to connect with nature on a regular basis. That is more likely to happen when neighborhoods and communities have parks and green spaces.

But having such green spaces requires planning and making individual and community health a priority. Otherwise, cities focus on selling land to developers to generate income from property sales and property taxes.

Such nature areas don’t have to be massive woodlands. I was in Miami several months ago and enjoyed walking in Margaret Pace Park. The 8-acre park, located next to the Intercostal Waterway, was a haven for those who lived or worked in the surrounding high-rises. The park was filled with people running, walking, cycling, walking dogs, playing volleyball, and practicing yoga. Even with several hundred people in the park, one still could connect with nature with the open lawns, trees and a view of the water.

Chimney Tops Trail volunteers - photo by Josh Shapiro

I’ve been a volunteer with the Trails Forever crew. That’s me in the orange helmet.

I do hope you’ll Opt Outside as often as possible for your own health and to connect with nature, and to connect with others who enjoy nature.

I also hope you’ll support local, state and national parks by volunteering to help maintain them (such as trash clean up or trail maintainence) and by voting in ways that fund and preserve parks.

Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) provides an opportunity to donate to nature-supporting charitable organizations.

Please share a favorite outdoor location of yours or a group that has encouraged you to enjoy nature.

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