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Take Two Trails and Call Me in the Morning

Health Care Report: Going outdoors is just what the doctor ordered


Peaks to Plains Trail, which runs through Jefferson and Clear Creek Counties. Photo credit: moxie82inc. 

It’s almost too obvious: A growing body of research has concluded that outdoor recreation — the mere act of getting outside — is good for your health.

As every health care policy shares the central aim of containing costs, better integrating and aligning the health care and outdoor industries makes good fiscal sense. Colorado is uniquely positioned to serve as a Petri dish and reap the benefits of the correlation.

A 2018 report from the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, “Colorado Outdoor Rx,” explored the links between the outdoors and health. Some of the numbers are sobering: From 1990 to 2016, Colorado’s obesity rate more than tripled to 22% from 7%. (That still makes Colorado the slimmest state in the union, as the national average is north of 37%.) Nationally, more than $100 billion in health care costs are attributed to inadequate physical activity.

The report offers a framework to catalyze the concept of park prescriptions statewide that involves the public sector, nonprofits and the business community. And that means not just outdoor-oriented companies, but the entire spectrum; “Colorado Outdoor Rx” makes a strong business case that programs that get employees outside help foster good corporate culture.

The concept of park prescriptions has been gaining steam for a decade, as more and more scientific evidence piled up and programs such as Park Rx America and Trail Prescriptions New Mexico popped up across the country. In Colorado, the city of Westminster instituted a like-minded Rx for Health program, and Rocky Mountain Health Plans has announced plans for a similar prescription for outdoor activities.

Dr. Jay Lee, an internal medicine physician and chief at Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s Highlands Ranch Medical Office, is one local physician who’s embraced the concept. “I give a lot of verbal prescriptions for getting outside and being active,” he says. “It’s probably the most valuable prescription I can give. It has so many benefits.”

It starts with simply getting outdoors. “I tell them to go outside every day for at least 30 minutes,” says Lee, who then starts getting more specific with activity recommendations. “You give them options: hiking, biking, running or even just walking. We live in a great state with so many trails and parks.”

Lee talks about the benefits related to just being outside for 30 minutes a day. “One is just exposure to sun. It’s well-documented you need some UV light to activate the vitamin B you ingest . . . it really helps with mood disorders and depression.”

Beyond general fitness and weight loss, outdoor recreation can also help manage chronic pain, Lee  adds, noting Colorado is one of the top 10 opioid-prescribing states on a per-capita basis. “Daily exercise can give you as much pain relief as opioids,” Lee says. “What you take in a pill, you can get through exercise every day.”

He adds, “I hope this is the future of medicine, where I’m not just prescribing medications, but we’re trying to improve the health of everyone.”

And Lee knows from experience: He started cycling, golfing and otherwise getting outside every day 12 years ago. “It was life-changing, not in terms of just weight loss, but feeling better,” he says, advising, “Schedule exercise like a meeting, and show up. Make it a priority.”

“Americans spend 90% of their time inside a building or a vehicle,” says Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). “Those of us who paddle or bicycle or hike or go fishing know: Outdoor recreation is good for our bodies and our psyches.”

But it’s not always accessible for every community, and Colorado is not exempt. “We were under the impression that Coloradans get outside all the time,” she adds. “There are rural places that have disturbing health outcomes and lack of connections to the outdoors compared to urban places.”

The data shows that most outdoor recreationalists travel fewer than 20 miles to their destinations. Even Leadville, surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks, was sometimes lacking in easy access for locals. “Would you let your 8-year-old go into the National Forest by themselves?” Aangeenbrug says.

“We kind of call it the Lake County paradox,” says Beth Helmke, director of Get Outdoors Leadville!, the Lake County Public Health Agency program funded by a 2016 Generation Wild grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the organization that invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds in the state’s parks, trails and open spaces.

Focused on equitable access to the outdoors, the Generation Wild program has invested $29 million in 15 statewide communities for “close-to-home places to play,” GOCO Director of Program Jackie Miller says.

The largely Hispanic population in Leadville had numerous barriers to entry for outdoor recreation. “It’s a very privileged opportunity for folks who are [financially] comfortable,” Helmke says. “It’s several thousand dollars to outfit a family to go backpacking.” To this end, Get Outdoors Leadville! has a gear library with a collection of lendable outdoor gear.

Helmke says while she’s seen positive health outcomes, that wasn’t the original impetus for the program. “The charge from GOCO was just to get people outside,” she says. “It’s focused a lot on youth and youth being the change agent for the population.”

In the first two years of programming, Get Outdoors Leadvillle! saw over 100,000 hours of participation. “People having a discomfort about how to get started was certainly the case two-plus years ago,” Helmke says. “Now we have families coming to us.”

As the early health outcomes have been compelling, she says the next step is a more structured park prescription model. “It’s something that hasn’t been formalized yet, but it is something that has a lot of potential,” Helmke says. “It’s an amazing panacea for so many of the things we’re trying to fix these days.”

GOCO’s Miller calls Generation Wild “great infrastructure for local health agencies and entities to activate with prescriptions for play” and says she hopes to expand and enhance the program with park and trail prescriptions as part of the next phase. “Our state is really primed to make the connection between the outdoor industry and the health care industry.”

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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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