Endorphins, sunshine and inspiring views -- always a sure recipe for lifting me out of the winter blahs. I've always been addicted to the rush of fresh oxygen and the healthy buzz I get from working up a sweat in the outdoors. It admittedly keeps me sane and helps me work through things, stimulates creative ideas and releases the stress of the week or the day.
This Sunday, I had plans to explore the trails off Dutchman Flats with a mountain-biking buddy of mine, Keith Young. Before we left town for the trip that morning, I was having a case of the March blues. There was a sinking feeling of unease and lack of motivation pumping through my veins, a mental devil on my shoulder trying to talk me into sitting on the couch staring out the window all day.
But I suspected this would all go away once we hit the trail, so, with a little more effort than it usually takes, we rallied toward Mt. Bachelor and took the last spot open in the Dutchman lot. We entered the meadow, soon finding some single-track to the right that skirted the snowmobile tracks and hugged the tree line for about a half mile before the long, steep climb toward Todd Lake. It only took about five minutes of skiing along and enjoying views of Broken Top in the distance to lift my spirits, and soon we were snapping pictures and laughing about the general awkwardness of cross country skis.
The experience of this mental shift reminded me of so many times in the past that playing in the outdoors has been a form of therapy, contributing to my overall sense of well-being and needed connection to nature. Some of the happiest times in my life were floating down a river, summiting a mountain or learning a new skill like skate skiing or rolling a kayak.
I decided to do a little research on the outdoor activity/mental health connection, as I'm sure I'm not the only one in Central Oregon for whom exercise and fresh air is a form of therapy. For a lot of outdoor enthusiasts, I think it even goes beyond the simple day-to-day activity and enters into a spiritual realm, in which little moments of transcendence, rapture and physical achievement become part of what makes life worth living.
First stop was to talk with Stephanie Howe who, besides winning the Pole Peddle Paddle last year, also teaches Health and Human Performance at Central Oregon Community College.
"Physical activity can clear your mind, reduce stress and improve mood through the release of endorphins," Howe said. "Plus, if you're outside you may gain additional benefits, such as Vitamin D exposure from the sun, improved air quality to breathe in, and the mental stimulation from the beautiful scenery!"
Beyond the direct physiological benefits of outdoor activity, psychologists like Abraham Maslow have argued that they can help people reach their full potential. Because people experience transcendent or "peak" experiences while engaged in a certain outdoor activity, they develop the habits necessary to become a great rock climber or skier.
I think one of the best examples of this is the literal translation of climbing a mountain and experiencing both a sense of accomplishment and wonderment at the beautiful views from the peak. In Maslow's view, for this to be a true "peak," you would experience awe and wonder, and surrender and humility through your surroundings.
During my ski with Keith on Sunday, there was no physical or metaphorical peak, and I'm pretty sure we never even got to Todd Lake, but instead a large basin below Broken Top. Still, I think we both felt lucky to be up there on a beautiful day, and particularly for Keith, he had just completed one of his more challenging cross country ski treks of the season.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi took Maslow's ideas further by proving that people are most happy when engaged in activities that allow them to feel mentally or physically challenged to their full capacity, but are still able to perform and complete the activity, thereby gaining a sense of self-worth and accomplishment.
I know I would be overstepping my bounds to say that a half-day ski around Broken Top profoundly affected Keith, but I do agree that there is a strong connection between physical achievement and happiness. He did complete something that was a little bit outside of his comfort zone, but was able to do so specifically because he was in such good shape from his other workouts, like biking and lifting.
When you are performing at your fullest capacity, Csikszentmihalyi says that you enter into a state of "flow." He describes this state in a Wired interview as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Maybe peak and flow is what keeps us getting back out there, even when the devil on our shoulder would argue we should keep sleeping, or stay out all night before a big ski trip. There are all these photographs in my head of kayak trips, and hikes and ski adventures, and I think those times are when I've been the most happy, simultaneously challenged and in awe of my surroundings.