Voices: Log off and get outside again

by Fred Schwab
Friday, January 20, 2012

I began this column while meandering across the West just after Labor Day last year. We drove from Telluride, Colo., to Zion National Park in Utah, to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, and finally to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Along the way, I found myself contemplating an August article in the New York Times by reporter Matt Richtel called “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain.” Richtel had accompanied five brain scientists as they rafted down the San Juan River from Mexican Hat, Utah, toward Lake Powell. They intentionally left their laptops behind. Cell phone service was sketchy to nonexistent. Their goal was to evaluate whether “heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave. Does a retreat back into nature possibly reverse those effects?” I wondered if I could perform my own such experiment.

Some participants on Richtel’s trip started off convinced that digital connectedness, our constant use of technology, inhibits deep thought, reduces the ability to focus and increases anxiety. They thought that getting away from civilization and returning to nature might reverse these effects, as suggested by a previous University of Michigan study showing that people learn better after walking in the woods, rather than walking down a busy city street.

Others on Richtel’s trip regarded the need for instant information as essential, arguing that civilization in the digital age ends without cell phone service and immediate access to the Internet. (Personally, I was somewhere in the middle, wanting some connectedness, but some remoteness.) Richtel reported that the two opposing groups remained at odds to the end — although the more laid-back, outdoorsy types won some small victories, he noted.

In general, the downsides of indoor inactivity are obvious: obesity, diabetes and an increased propensity to develop Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among the young (heck, probably among the not-so-young too). Being outdoors has demonstrable benefits: Studies have shown that exposure to natural settings reduces the symptoms of ADHD, and sunlight stimulates the pineal gland, increasing serotonin levels, vitamin D and healthy biorhythms. Good feelings are enhanced and depression lessened. Walking, by itself a good aerobic exercise, eases the mind. Hiking through marvelous geological settings such as Yellowstone, or rafting down the Colorado, or scaling the cliffs in Zion lifts our spirits, altering what we think is important in life. We become less focused on ourselves.

In recent decades, humans have become less immersed in nature and less exposed to its beneficial effects. Since 1987, Americans have spent one-fourth less time hunting, fishing, and visiting parks and forests. Even geologists spend less time outside and more time in the lab or office staring at computer screens.

The 2008 and 2009 American Time Use Surveys (by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) show that people over age 15 spend roughly five to six hours a day on leisure activities, but half of that (if not more) is gazing at television. Computer and telephone use varies as a function of age and gender, ranging from less than an hour to up to four hours. Only one-fifth of the population spends at least an hour each day involved in sports, exercise and recreation. And much of that isn’t even outside in nature — it’s in a gym (that’s still better than not moving though). Kids grow up inside a box; they are almost always in a room. During school, they average four to seven minutes a day of unstructured outdoor play.

Spending on outdoor recreation annually is about $350 billion (roughly $1,000 per person), about half of which is on public lands. For comparison, each American spends $1,200 for electronics (TV’s, computers, cell phones), $450 on alcohol, $320 for tobacco, $150 on pets, and more than $6,000 for healthcare per se and health insurance annually.

Geologists can help reverse these disturbing trends by reaching out to the public and educating them more effectively about Earth and its geological features. We can boost the appeal of being disconnected and venturing into nature. This would benefit young folks' health, and might increase awareness of our profession. A starting point is the “Be Out There” program embraced by the National Wildlife Federation. It counters young people’s tendency to live in “an interior landscape."

At the end of our trip at the North Rim, where there was no Wi-Fi and only spotty cell phone service, I initially felt naked. I recovered quickly after encountering other “disconnected” people hiking along the rim and on the trails down into the canyon. We made eye contact, smiled and cheerfully stopped to chat.

At the next geoscience meeting you attend, note how many of us remain “plugged in” to our computers and cell phones, rather than to one another. The on/off button on phones and computers works both ways. After my initial panic, I found it rejuvenating to unplug for awhile. You might too — then spread the word.

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