For the past few years, REI has shut down its entire business for Black Friday. The company gives its employees the day off, keeps it brick and mortar doors closed, and even flips over the “closed” sign on its website. All part of the #OptOutside campaign to emphasize, well, getting the hell out from behind a screen or work in whatever fashion and spending time in the big wide outdoors.
This year, REI is adding a new wrinkle to #OptOutside by partnering with the University of Washington to the tune of a $1 million donation to a new academic initiative called “Nature for Health.” The idea is to build a mountain of data surrounding the health benefits of living a life outside, while also digging deeper into the demographics of the outside community to figure out how to increase access to green spaces and public lands to people who don’t traditionally make a lot of use of those spaces.
“There’s a big opportunity for us to move from anecdote to facts,” Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI told Adventure Journal. “We believe in a life outdoors, we’re passionate about it. Investing in the UW partnership is to get to the facts behind the transformative effects of nature. Just knowing how being outside can affect the development of kids, both in terms of mental and physical health, or can affect veterans with PTSD—there’s a pretty long list of examples—having facts is an important part of that story when we advocate for getting more people outdoors.”
The Nature for Health program will be part of UW’s Earthlab program and headed by ecologist Josh Lawler, who wants to investigate how certain kinds of outdoor activity may have particular benefits, and which communities experience the greatest inequalities when it comes to enjoying those benefits.
It seems that the idea that health benefits runneth over when one spends lots of time in nature, whether on adrenaline-soaked adventures or simply in quiet meditation, has been making lots of news lately. Doctors are increasingly prescribing nature walks as medical therapy, for example.
Lawler explained a bit about why that might be.
“We’ve seen evidence building over the past 10-20 years that contact with nature has many positive implications for mental and physical health,” he told AJ. “People are starting to pay attention to that evidence. We have a ways to go to understand the breadth of that relationship and how it actually works, but knowing that will help us translate data [about health and the outdoors] into specific recommendations. That could be anything from the design of preschools to outdoor policy…to figuring out how unequal access is to green space and nature.”
REI has already plunked down significant investments in research by the Sierra Club, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital’s Center for Nature and Health, and the Oregon Public Health Institute, among other groups, to understand a bit more about the link between human health and the outdoors. Perhaps unsurprising, one of their initial studies showed that experiencing a connection with a profound natural force or experience did wonders. “Getting outdoors improves physical, mental, and social well-being and that the emotion of awe experienced in nature is an important mechanism driving these effects.”
Stritzke explained that a big part of their efforts will be toward figuring out how to reach people who don’t find it particularly easy to head for the hills whenever they feel like a bit of release into nature.
“We’ve got a bunch of what we call rewilding projects going on, trying to make it easier for people in urban areas to get outdoors,” he said. “In some places that’s simple, like running buses from downtown Seattle to local trailheads, so people can do quick 8-mile loops without a ton of elevation gain, or reclaiming abandoned industrial spaces in Chicago to build singletrack courses. “The insights we’ll get from this [Nature for Health] study will let us even better target specific groups of people to help get them outside.”
“I would love for all the data generated by this project to be a common knowledge across the outdoor industry to help people embrace a life outside,” Stritzke said.
Photo: Mia and Steve Mestdagh