America’s largest conservation organization, the National Wildlife Federation, is asking people across the county to join the Be Out There movement by making a special New Year’s resolution: to make family outdoor time a priority in the year to come. And to help people stick to the goal, the NWF is providing an online resource of activities and ideas to get families — and especially children — out in the fresh air.
The program’s mission, stated at nwf.org, is “to return to the nation’s children what they don’t even know they’ve lost: their connection to the natural world. Kids today spend twice as much time indoors as their parents did, missing out on the simple pleasures and lasting mental and physical health benefits of daily outdoor time.”
“‘Get outside and play. You’ll feel better. Get some fresh air.’ These are ambiguous statements made by past generations. Our parents and grandparents had the knowledge, but not the facts or research to back it up,” said Eric Taylor, a licensed clinical social worker and the Director of the Bangor Y Leaders School of outdoor, adventure-based learning.
In his private practice and work at the Bangor Y, Taylor often refers to current studies about how exercise and outdoor activity can improve a person’s health and well-being in multiple ways.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of outdoor activity is that it prevents obesity. More than one third (35.7 percent) of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several studies have shown that outdoor activity can improve other aspects of physical health, as well as emotional and mental health.
In a Japanese study featured in the December 2012 Outside magazine, researchers back up the theory that time spent in nature can lower a person’s blood pressure, fight off depression, lower stress and prevent cancer.
These health benefits come from numerous avenues. For example, soil bacteria and other micro-organisms inhaled outdoors can alter hormone levels to improve mood, decrease anxiety, strengthen the immune system and improve cognitive function. And simply being exposed to sunlight will boost a person’s production of white blood cells (which helps the body combat disease) and red blood cells (which increases muscular endurance).
“One of the best things that folks can do is set goals for themselves — and they should be smart goals,” Taylor said. “And that’s an acronym. It stands for sustainable, measurable, achievable, realistic and trackable. If you’re a person who hasn’t been outside a lot or exercised a lot, it’s important to start slowly.”
Just five minutes of exercise in a natural outdoor setting can boost a person’s mood and self-esteem, according to a 2010 study by scientists Jules Pretty and Jo Barton of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom.
“If five minutes outside can make a difference, think about what 20 minutes can do for you,” Taylor said. “And it’s realistic for people to spend 20 minutes outdoors.”
People can search online for outdoor activities by keyword, age, cost, difficulty, duration, location, season and physical challenges, on the NWF “Be Out There” website, nwf.org/Be-Out-There.aspx.
“The first thing I’d encourage people to do is set goals individually and as a family,” Taylor said. “If you think of role modeling, kids are going to be more likely to do something if they see their parents doing it.
“Another thing — be prepared to deal with resistance, especially with children … Kids are going to resist doing anything involving effort. It’s sort of inbred. With that, parents might provide some kind of incentive, whether it’s a family movie or a special treat at the dinner table.”
In a recent study by the National Wildlife Federation, 94 percent of mothers surveyed believed that their children were not getting enough outside play, and a third of the mothers surveyed felt guilty about it.
In the study, 61 percent of parents shared that weather was one of the biggest roadblocks for spending time in the outdoors.
“I tell people all the time, kids especially, if you can’t deal with all types of weather, you need to live in another state,” Taylor said.
If you plan to be out there in Maine for 2013, you need to embrace the snow and rain, and prepare for it with proper clothing and footwear.
Other roadblocks to spending time outside were safety concerns (38 percent), homework (31 percent) and the lure of technology (36 percent).
A national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation — given in 1999, 2004 and 2009 — found U.S. residents ages 8-18 devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media (text messaging, surfing the Web, watching TV, playing video games) every day.
Taylor has had plenty of experience motivating his five sons to spend time outdoors, enjoying the Maine wilderness.
When it comes to outdoor activities, Taylor suggests following the KISS Principle, an acronym for “keep it simple, stupid (or silly).”
“Whatever you’re doing, don’t make it too complex, and then celebrate it when you’ve done it,” Taylor said.
To prepare for your 2013 New Year’s resolution to spend more time in the outdoors, take the pledge to Be Out There at online.nwf.org/site/PageServer?pagename=BeOutThere_Pledge2010. Also, consider liking Be Out There on Facebook and joining the chat party on Jan. 17 to talk with other parents about how to fit more outdoor time into the family routine.
For information about the Be Out There program, visit nwf.org/Be-Out-There.aspx.