Adventuring FOMO May be Harmful to Our Health

Is your first reaction when presented with stirring imagery of other people’s adventures to be buoyed with inspiration? Or to be frustrated with envy? If it’s the latter, you may want to sit down. Or, actually, wait, don’t do that. A new Stanford study suggests that simply suspecting that you’re not as active as you should be—that is, if you’re constantly confronted with glorious images of people tromping around the backcountry all day, but there you are, stuck in front of a computer, how do those people get outside so much anyway?—can be harmful to your health. To the point of actually increasing your chances of dying sooner.

Oh, come on.

The study analyzed health surveys from as far back as 1990 and then followed up with the respondents in 2011. The people who reported in the initial surveys that they just didn’t feel as active as their peers were more likely to have died by the 2011 followup than the people who felt like they were getting just as much excercise as they needed, thank you very much. Didn’t really matter how physically active anybody involved in the study really was. Even if you were in great shape, if you simply felt like you were slacking in the activity department, you were more likely to actually die than people who thought they were crushing it.

Or, in study speak: “Individuals who perceived themselves as less active than other people their age had an up to 71% higher mortality risk than those who perceived themselves as more active. More important, this result held when controlling for actual amounts of activity, sociodemographic variables, health status, and other health behaviors.”

Well, okay, but does anybody actually feel like they’re as active and adventurous as they should be?

Sure, I feel like I’m probably a little more active than the average guy my age. But even though it’s basically my job to hike and camp and surf and write about it, I still feel like I’m out there exploring trails and sleeping under the stars and just generally exerting myself in the outdoors far, far less than I could be, and definitely less than lots of people with slobber-inducing outdoorsy social media accounts.

Doesn’t even matter if I’ve just gotten back from a backpacking trip.

I’ll often be sitting on the tailgate of my truck at a trailhead somewhere, peeling an orange, having just finished a multi-day loop, bone-tired and eager to sleep in my own bed, when a couple people will walk past, clean backpacks loaded with gear, just setting out on a trip, and BOOM, instant envy. For a moment I’ll fantasize about strapping the pack back on, dusting off my hiking hat, and hitting the trail right behind them. The FOMO is real, even for those of us fortunate enough to spend lots and lots of time galavanting around in the woods.

The study offered a few explanations for why simply feeling lazy might be unhealthy. First, if you feel plenty active, you’re more likely to engage in behavior that makes you feel more healthy; conversely, just feeling like you’re not getting out there and moving your body enough can sap motivation. Second, because we’re bombarded by messages that celebrate being fit and healthy and running over mountains while doing yoga while also stand-up paddleboarding, we can get really stressed if we’re not measuring up, and you know how bad stress is for your body. Finally, there can be a “nocebo” effect, where if you feel like you’re not active and fit enough, your body won’t actually benefit from the time you do spend trail running and hiking. A cruel opposite of the placebo, basically.

I hope you’ll stand with me and say to this study: Bullshit.

Sure, we may not feel like we’re as active as we should be. But that’s half the reason I load up a truck with gear at ungodly hours and point the thing at the nearest mountain range. I want to be out there running around more than I actually am. That’s the engine that drives me. Here’s the important part: If I felt like I was actually adventuring and being active as much as I should be, I’d probably do those things less. It’s being outside less than I’d like that motivates me to actually go outside. This seems simple. Maybe I’m missing something.

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