As new data continue to show a positive correlation between outdoor recreation and better physical and mental health, Becky Leinweber hopes to connect various sectors of the community to help Pikes Peak-area residents capitalize on the region’s plentiful opportunities.
“I think people are realizing that the outdoors is not just about physical health benefits, but it brings so many other components to it,” said Leinweber, executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance. “There’s been an array of studies confirming what people have always thought, and that is that being in nature helps the whole person.”
The average person spends 90 percent of the day inside buildings or vehicles, Leinweber said, and kids average only four to seven minutes of unrestricted outdoor play each day.
“It’s not like when I grew up and my mom would say, ‘All right, go play and I’ll call you back when dinner’s ready,’ and we’d just spend all day outside,’” she said. “We’d play kickball, we’d be at the creek, climbing trees — just playing outdoors in nature.
“It’s completely changed, and because of that we’re seeing all these health issues in kids and adults when we’re all more sedentary.”
Coloradans typically think of themselves as ahead of the curve when it comes to physical health, Leinweber said. A study published by the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation found the Centennial State had the nation’s lowest rate of obesity (22.3 percent) in 2016, compared to the country’s highest rate of 37.7 percent.
In spite of those statistics, Colorado’s obesity rate has more than tripled in the last 30 years, from 6.9 percent in 1990. Additionally, one in four Colorado children is obese, the study found.
Colorado also has the nation’s eighth-highest rate of suicide, the seventh-highest non-medical use of prescription pain relievers, and significant racial and ethnic disparities in infant mortality and life expectancy, according to the study.
“As awesome as we rate in Colorado, sometimes we look at ourselves against the rest of the nation and go, ‘Hey, we’re OK,’ but when you look at how it’s changed over the years, it’s not so good,” Leinweber said. “It’s a physical crisis, but it’s also a mental crisis, it’s a connectedness crisis. The outdoors can play such a significant role.”
Studies also show that the setting of one’s exercise can provide just as many benefits as the exercise itself, Leinweber said.
“They have seen different reactions in your brain whether you’re walking in the city or walking in the outdoors in a forested area,” she said. “They’ve made some significant connections.
“Some of the things they’ve noticed is that exposure to nature leads to a reduction in stress levels and increased social connectedness — all things we need as a society.”
Some local outdoor recreation businesses already are tapping into that potential, Leinweber said. One example is SUP Colorado Springs, a stand-up paddle board rental company that partners with the city’s parks and recreation department to host an adaptive paddling program on Prospect Lake in Memorial Park.
“We have a board that has a wheelchair for people who either can’t stand or have balance issues,” owner Jake Figueroa said. “It gives them the opportunity to paddle out in the water just like everyone else.”
Stand-up paddleboarding offers a range of health benefits for everyone, Figueroa said, but people with disabilities especially have an often-rare opportunity to work out the core of their bodies.
“Just being on the water, your blood pressure goes down,” Figueroa said.
SUP Colorado Springs also has a family board that can fit up to 10 people, with the option of strapping a wheelchair to that board as well for people with disabilities who want to enjoy the sport with their families, Figueroa said.
“We’re all about providing activities for the community and making sure we’re not singling anyone out,” he said. “[Stand-up paddleboarding] is the fastest-growing sport in the world, and it’s not just for a particular group of people. There are a lot of adaptive programs in this community, and we wanted to make sure we had something.”
Angler’s Covey, the fly-fishing business Leinweber co-owns with her husband, David, often partners with Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit organization that promotes the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled service members — both active duty and veterans — through guided fly-fishing trips.
“The thing about fly fishing is, it takes all of your attention and concentration. … If you have an emotional disability, PTSD in particular, it’s really hard to focus on those issues,” Leinweber said. “At the same time, you’re in nature, and you have the soothing rhythm of the water and the great mountain air — all of that helps in healing.”
Leinweber also has been brainstorming ideas on connecting PPORA with businesses that may not be outdoors-based, but care about their workforce, she said.
“I think there’s more we can connect with our outdoor recreation community and see how we can help our businesses provide services to their employees,” Leinweber said. “All of our outdoor recreation is so close to home — it’s right at our back door. A lot of our workforce came here because of that connection to the outdoors, and we as employers need to support that.”
RX: the outdoors
In March, Weld County officials launched Outdoor Rx, a pilot program that allows physicians to prescribe the outdoors as an alternative to, or alongside, pharmaceuticals.
“What they’re trying to figure out is how they can get physicians to prescribe the outdoors, just like you’d write a prescription for any other medication, like, ‘You need to take a 30-minute walk in the foothills,’ or, ‘You need to sit in your park in green space,’” Leinweber said. “I would love to see more of that.”
Weld County has had no problem getting physicians on board with the program, Leinweber said, and she hopes the initiative would be met with similar enthusiasm in El Paso County.
“We’re trying to first build those relationships between the health care community and the outdoor recreation community, because it starts there,” Leinweber said. “It’s just a matter of, ‘OK, what’s the next step?’ What would it look like here?’
“It’s really looking at a cross-sector framework and trying to figure out strategies that utilize each of the sectors,” she added. “I’m excited. I think this has a lot of promise.”