For many Americans, 2020 was the year of the family walk. Daily strolls replaced other activities as people practiced social distancing and observed COVID-19 restrictions.

As we grapple with all the pandemic has changed, REI and its research partners are pushing for increased time outdoors to be a lasting trend. Marc Berejka, REI’s director of community advocacy and impact, says researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere are working to prove that spending time outdoors is key to better mental and physical health, with support from the newly founded REI Cooperative Action Fund.

The Seattle Times spoke with Berejka about the importance of time outside for mental well-being, the accessibility of outdoor recreation and the emergence of the nature and health movement in recent years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS

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Why is a REI a big proponent of time spent outdoors?

At REI, we believe deeply that time outside is fundamental to a life well lived. But if everyone in this country is going to have the opportunity to enjoy time outside, as a society, we need to appreciate the value of the health and wellness benefits more fully. Not everybody has … that intuitive notion that time outside has mental and physical health benefits. … The research that’s underway in different parts of the country is backing up the science that demonstrates the physical and mental health benefits of time outside, and that’s good at the individual level for you to know that. It’s also good for our decision-makers, for our policymakers, to understand that there are concrete physical health and mental health benefits of time outside, because that supports their efforts to, in turn, create new green space and sustain existing green space.

On that same topic, tell me about the nature prescription or Park Rx program.

I would say that this idea of Park Rx or nature prescriptions, it’s just one facet of the nature and health movement — and, footnote, I do believe that there is a nature and health movement emerging. But the park prescription facet has been invented and cultivated by a community of medical doctors who feel so strongly that time outdoors is good for your physical and mental health that they want to prescribe it to you for your benefit. We sponsored some research at the University of Washington … and the professors collectively conclude that time in nature is a potentially very powerful medicine, if you will. … This swath of the medical community is trying to encourage their patients to take advantage of readily available, low-cost medicine, if you will, in the form of time outside.

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Mental health resources from The Seattle Times

Would you say the outdoors are accessible?

Yes, for sure, certain segments of society have ready access to time outside, but other segments of society don’t. … If you go to South Seattle, and the Central District, as a result of a legacy of redlining and land development, the less well-off parts of Seattle don’t have the same easy access to green space. … Then I’d say, the equity question has a second element to it, which is, from a cultural standpoint, has white America made the outdoors welcoming to nonwhite America? And you can look at incidents just over the past couple of years that show that if you’re a person of color, there’s aspects of getting outdoors that don’t seem as welcoming to you as they might to the white majority in America.

Where does Seattle as a whole stand in terms of outdoor accessibility?

The Trust for Public Land for a long time has had this mission, and a lot of us in the outdoor space have attached ourselves to this mission, and that is that every American should live within a 10-minute walk of a healthy green space. The Trust for Public Land database allows you to zero in on particular streets, particular neighborhoods, and determine whether there are indeed healthy parks within a 10-minute walk. And what you’ll find in Seattle is that, by and large, the more well-off, the more traditionally white neighborhoods, if you will, have ready, 10-minute walks to their green spaces. But less so in South Seattle, less so in South King County, again, as a historic result of redlining and other development practices.

How do you think the pandemic has impacted our relationship with the outdoors?

We’re at a point in time that has both opportunity and risk. The opportunity is that, over the course of the pandemic, individuals have come to appreciate the physical health and mental health benefits of time outdoors. … How do we capture that? How do we sort of shift our thinking collectively, and, as a society, see time outside and taking care of recreation places as a must-do, not a nice-to-do [project]? And I think in there lies the downside risk. It’s conceivable that, as the pandemic recedes, when it recedes, we revert to prior practice. One of our jobs in continuing to pursue the research and to promote the research is to let people understand that there is actually science behind this. … Time outside is, as a factual matter, as a scientific matter, good for you.

How is the movement about health and outdoors recreation evolving?

We helped create the health and nature conference that the University of Washington has run each October for the last four or five years. This last October, they went virtual, and they went national. As a result, they had at least 100 presenters and over 300 participants. The folks at UW who are the researchers were blown away by the size of the community that they discovered existing across the country, and they are of the mind to continue to grow the national community of researchers into the health and nature connection. So, UW is positioning itself … as the national convener of a health and nature research community.

The Trust for Public Land just established … a new senior VP role that’s been assumed by Howie Frumkin, who is renowned in this space, and was formerly dean of the UW School of Public Health. You have a public health professional with a robust resume in research and in disease prevention now running a national organization, or part of a national organization, that tries to put parks closer to people. So, this idea of health and time in nature coming close together is gaining traction, and Howie personifies that.