Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.See all posts »
Get Outdoors - 2nd Anniversary of Medicine for the Outdoors
I recently read a brief notation in Scientific American that “Americans are losing interest in going outdoors.” This comment was offered by a writer who based his opinion on “researchers” who “analyzed trends in visits to parks and forests and in licenses for activities such as hunting and fishing.” He noted that these visits appear to have been declining at roughly one percent per year since 1991, and then concluded that “electronic diversions may be taking over, and that increasing school and work pressure(s) and a fear he calls “stranger danger” may be contributing.
If this is true, then it is worrisome, but before we draw conclusions, I think we need to know how representative the statistics referenced are for the outdoor enthusiast population at large. Are visits to parks and forests, which may require expensive modes of transportation, indicative of how many individuals spend their time on local outdoor activities? Are hunters and fishermen representative for cyclists, rock climbers, skiers, scuba divers, scouts, mountaineers, and all of the other outdoor and adventure enthusiasts? I cannot be certain, but I doubt it. My observations, and those of many others, is actually quite the opposite – namely, that outdoor recreation is one of the fastest growing modes of recreation. People love to be outside, and in our desk-sitting modern society, it's a good thing.
So, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The average American probably eats too much, has too much body fat, and doesn’t get enough exercise. Children today certainly have more opportunities to become couch potatoes, and often consider a workout to be a session with Nintendo or Guitar Hero. I recall my youth, and how much time I tried to be outside, even in a relatively urban environment, and watch children today spend more time indoors, less time exploring, and far less time on adventure. I share the author’s concern that we may be approaching a time when exploration and adventure are more intimidating and of necessity occur within a more structured and restricted environment.
But if we observe all of this in its totality, being outdoors is not restricted to such activities as a hike in the woods or a float down a river. If your child kicks a soccer ball, throws a Frisbee, or swings a baseball bat, he or she is outside. If you play golf, walk the dog, or wash your car at the park, you are outside. It may be more difficult to find fresh air, but it is out there. We will all be more conservation minded if we set a goal to be outside without having to wear an N95 filter mask and gradually expand, not contract, our protected wilderness areas. If a decline in the statistics noted by the author in Scientific American represent anything about which we should be concerned, it is that in the diminution of exposure to the outdoors, we run the risk of losing interest. For the sake of future generations, we cannot afford to do that.
Inherent in outdoor activities are risks, as we well know from current environmental hazards such as the wildfires in northern California, and tornadoes and floods in our heartland. There will always be a need for sound medical practice and advice in the outdoors, which by definition sounds words of caution. But Medicine for the Outdoors exists because every wilderness is a magnificent place, and I will always be a proponent of seizing opportunities to run rivers, slide down dunes, hike trails, dive on reefs, and spend nights under the stars. Wilderness medicine is mostly about taking care of fundamentally healthy individuals who get into trouble doing the things they love, and so it is doubly gratifying.
photo by Brenda Tiernan
Preview the 25th Anniversary & Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society, which will be held in Snowmass, Colorado July 25-30, 2008.
Tags: Medicine for the Outdoors, wilderness medicine, outdoor medicine, healthline
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