Is America becoming an indoor nation? New study begs question

Laura Kottlowski of Boulder crosses a snow field below Lake of Glass while climbing to Sky Pond at 10,900 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park Sunday, March 13, 2016. According to a report unveiled Wednesday at the Outdoor Retailer trade show, less than half of Americans hiked, biked, camped or participated in any of the 42 fresh-air activities considered in an annual survey by the Outdoor Foundation. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

For players in the outdoor recreation industry, the name of the game is getting people to play in nature.

On Wednesday at their biggest meeting place, the Outdoor Retailer trade show, they learned they might be failing.

According to a report unveiled at the Colorado Convention Center, less than half of Americans hike, bike, camp or participate in any of the 42 fresh-air activities considered in the Outdoor Foundation’s annual survey.

Maybe 50% doesn’t sound bad, said Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, which commissioned the study.

“But when you really look at this and think about this, it’s 50% of Americans (saying) they went outside at least one time in the year. So what that means is 50% say they don’t go outside even once a year.”

And what’s “really disturbing,” she said, was the finding that there were 1 billion fewer outdoor trips in 2018 compared with a decade earlier, when the survey began.

The study asked 20,000 Americans their habits, split between adults and children. Of those, 18% were considered “moderate outdoor participants,” venturing out about once a week. That was 33% for at least once a month. Overall, trips were down 7.4% from the previous year.

“The frequency of outdoor activity among youth was equally worrisome,” the report reads. Kids’ outings have decreased 15% from findings in 2012. And the trend doesn’t bode well for the future of public lands that need next generation voters who care, Aangeenbrug said.

It all led to the question posed Wednesday at a seminar: “Is America becoming an indoor nation?”

Given the data and the well-documented benefits of outdoor activity, Aaron Reuben, a science writer out of Duke University, struggled to see trends in chronic disease and mental illness getting better — “unless we actively intervene.”

He moderated a panel discussion that included Jeff Bellows, the Massachusetts-based VP of corporate citizenship and public affairs for Blue Cross Blue Shield. Bellows pointed to a collaboration between for-profits and nonprofits to introduce inner-city kids to the outdoors.

“What we know is a lot of people in the inner city don’t feel safe going outside,” he said. But with guides, “it demystifies what it means to be in a park.”

Thanks to funding from L.L. Bean, a basketball court was recently built in an underprivileged neighborhood in her native Cleveland, said Shanelle Smith Whigham, with the Trust for Public Land. But it’s not always about getting something new, she said. “Sometimes it’s about, let’s just play and have fun.”

More emphasis should be put on closing gaps between homes and green spaces, she said. The survey found less than 18% of outdoor participants traveled 20 or more miles; nearly the same percentage preferred to go “right outside my door.” Most stayed between 1 and 10 miles.

In Colorado, Generation Wild has aimed to be a national model for connecting youth to the outdoors. The initiative, launched in 2017 and powered by the lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado, focuses on 15 communities around the state. One of these is the Pikes Peak region, where projects have included a kids bike park and a beach house at Prospect Lake.

The Outdoor Foundation highlighted “some bright spots” from the new study. Females are not part of the downward trajectory on the participation chart, with their activity up 3.2% from the previous year.

Caucasians make up a troubling, overwhelming majority of “moderate participants.” But that level of activity continues to grow among Hispanics, with this study’s findings being the most since 2008.


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