By Jaime Collins
Something magic happened last summer. Amid the pain and loneliness and chaos of the pandemic, people began to take paths less traveled. Literally.
With most of the world shut down and the brakes on every plan ever conceived, people ventured outdoors. Scores of people took to the trails and hiking paths. Deep in the wilds of state parks, one can normally count on being alone. Until COVID flipped that script. If the forest were a company, business was booming last summer.
Bicycling was booming. Walkers were everywhere. And runners were running far and wide. One particular day in Governor Dodge I found especially memorable. I was on a trail I’d run many times in all seasons. A trail through meadow and forest, over and down hills and up steep bluffs. A solid eight miles of it. Only this day after a heavy rain, it wasn’t so solid. It was wet and water-logged. In other years, even on a nice day, after I got more than a half mile from the parking lot, I would find myself almost entirely alone. Instead, I found hiker after hiker. Couples. Entire families. All slogging along, miles from any parking, laughing and talking and enjoying the day despite their wet feet and tired legs.
Each day I was out on my old familiar trails, what I saw flew in the face of every other day prior to the pandemic. It also contradicted the recent research that showed people were staying home and walking and moving less. For example, Fitbit – the company that sells wearable devices that track physical activity levels of 30 million users – reported in the summer of 2020 a huge reduction in step counts.
With the decreases in activity, it wasn’t surprising that medical journals were reporting parallel increases in heart issues. A May 2020 study in the American Journal of Physiology sounded an alarm stating that decreases in activity may severely impact heart health and result in premature deaths among people with risk factors, such as high blood pressure or a family history of heart disease. Reports surfaced daily that told stories of loneliness and isolation, increased alcohol use, and vast increases in screen time among all ages. The physical and emotional toll of being shut in at home was inflicting real damage on our nation’s health.
But during these painful weeks and months, I was seeing something different. I felt I was witnessing a renaissance in our state parks and on trails across southwest Wisconsin. In the middle of the darkness was a bright and welcome light. Though nationally, average activity levels plummeted, the people I saw each day were getting active and enjoying the outdoors in numbers like never before. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, but there it was. Plain as day.
All these people on trails were, indeed, real. While state transportation departments around the Midwest and beyond were reporting sharp decreases in vehicular traffic (cars and trucks), parks departments were reporting record setting increases in people walking and bicycling on trails.
In my eyes, this was a monumental development. And one I was yearning to see continue. After the pandemic finally released its hold on the malls and restaurants and gatherings, I was hopeful people would keeping finding this joy outside. Or at least enough of it to foster new habits and keep it going once “normal” came calling again.
The problem though was just as real. And it’s not going away. Screens suck us away from real life adventure. Responsibilities, modern comforts, convenient parking, and consumerism all work together to throw up obstacles to getting outside. Changing technologies and the evil pursuit of more eyeballs on more screens push us farther down that bleak path of inactivity. As a result, our connections to the Earth and, to a great extent, to one another suffer greatly.
Over the decades, I’ve watched the rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and other chronic killers climb ever higher. Disease rates and mortality are all lifted unnaturally upward by sedentary lifestyles, stress, and a drift away from the natural world, including real food.
This new wave of people on area trails was a big part of the cure. The opportunity of a lifetime. It was a new and promising change to see physical activity increase so obviously. The best news is the antidote to our ills is always there, waiting for us outside. Fresh air, trees, healthy walks, and healthy social activity.
This year, I’m seeing those changes stick. For the most part. So far. I’ve not surveyed the people I pass. Or counted them. Or done any research on what people are doing or how often. But they’re still out there on the trails this season. I see them.
I hope they’re having the time of their lives, discovering new scenery, feeling the strength and vitality in their bodies, and finding ideas to talk about and new things to dream about. If some good can come from the pain and suffering of 2020, it is among my greatest hopes this literal movement is part of it. Our nation’s health needs the magic of last summer to continue.
We’re lucky we live where we do. Our Driftless area is full of magical places, and they’re not hard to find. Visit somewhere you’ve never been. Or go back to a place you haven’t been for years. Places among the trees. On a dirt path. In the sunshine. By the water. Breathe the fresh air. Feel the gentle wind on your face.
Here’s an option for you – Southwest Health’s free walking club, called Sole Mates, meets Monday evenings at 5:15pm at Katie’s Garden at the Platteville Regional Chamber. I’ve personally led this group for years. Our club also sponsors the 100 Mile in 100 Days Community Walking Challenge. The challenge you can do with the group or on your own. Find details for both and a sign up form at southwesthealth.org/walk.
Whether you’ve always been part of the magic outdoors… whether you found it last summer… or whether you are feeling ready to put your foot in and test the waters… the time is always now. You can count on one thing. Outside, far from the wifi, is where we’ll find the time of our lives.