On the Trails: The healing power of the great outdoors

Written by Randy Richardson

A good friend once pointed out to me that we never seem to refer to the “great indoors.” Two major surgeries in recent months have powerfully reminded me of just how much my mental and physical health are dependent on being active in the great outdoors.

For years, my two wonderful dogs and I have remained semi-sane and healthy with twice-a-day adventures — even through rain and wind and snow. But my initial recovery periods locked me down, and I felt the loss profoundly.

Unfortunately, with each decade that passes, I find myself facing more injuries and ailments with a body that is slower to recover. These realities were depressingly highlighted in 2023 during my 59th year when I was diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis in both of my hips.

I knew something was wrong when the simple acts of climbing onto a picnic table bench or into my son’s low-riding Honda Civic started to feel like Olympic events. Many hours of physical therapy did not help, and the medical experts made it clear that the pain and restricted range of motion would only improve if bone and cartilage were replaced with metal and plastic.

My faulty hips were not only negatively affecting my personal health, but also my work. I shifted from school administration to the Upper Valley Trails Alliance in 2016 because I was looking for a way to help more people be active and outdoors. During the last eight years of building, maintaining and advocating for our Upper Valley trails with UVTA, my life has been immeasurably enriched; I have become a trail and conservation evangelist.

I love going to work, especially on one of our UVTA High School Trail Corps days when we lead local high school students to learn trail skills and complete essential trail projects. But last year my hips slowed me down in increasingly frustrating ways — even some of our Trail Corps warmup stretches became almost impossible challenges for me.

I decided to get both hips replaced this winter, with a goal to be healthy for our primary trail work season (generally May through November). For the first few weeks after each surgery, my movement was necessarily limited to the not-so-great indoors. And while I am still unable to hike most of my favorite trails, I am now a month past my second surgery and excited to be walking outside again.

Thankfully, my hometown of Woodstock has some good sidewalks and flatter and more accessible trails, particularly the Ottauquechee River and Faulkner Trails. I am not yet a bionic superhero, but I am recovering and determined to come back stronger.

This limited mobility experience has only magnified my belief in the health benefits of regular outdoor recreation. Science supports these personal impressions: Many studies have proven that daily exercise is critical to maintaining our physical health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a minimum of one or more hours of exercise a day for kids and at least 150 minutes a week for adults. Regardless of minimum recommendations, any amount of any kind of exercise — including simple walking — is better than none.

I am also heartened that there are more researchers studying the mental health benefits of being active outdoors. One study showed that our heart rates and cortisol levels (a marker of stress) are lower when we spend time in nature. Other studies have demonstrated reductions in levels of depression and anxiety for those spending more time in the woods.

UVTA’s Passport to Winter Fun program was inspired by this kind of science to help ensure that more kids would stay active and outdoors throughout the winter months. We partner with local businesses to provide incentives that will help motivate kids to move for an hour or more every day.

This year, we delivered more than 5,000 passports to regional schools and home-school groups. Our goals are not only to provide immediate health benefits, but also to encourage critical, positive and lifelong habits. We can successfully lay this healthy foundation because being active mostly feels good and elementary school students tend to be healthy and receptive.

Still, cold and messy winter weather is only one potential deterrent to our aims. Couches, screens and the passing years tend to serve up distractions and challenges for all of us.

While we might hope to have strong motivation and impeccable health throughout our lives, there will inevitably be trials to overcome. Thankfully, the great outdoors provides us with inspirational gifts — not only pumping hearts and growing muscles, but also ecstatic dogs, perfect snowflakes, beautiful wildflowers, flowing streams, ancient stone walls, family picnics and stunning sunsets.

See you out on the trails — I’ll be the overly enthusiastic guy with two dogs and shiny new hips.