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Colorado’s outdoors offers a kind of therapy, but it’s not a magic pill

Nature’s therapy – ‘Vitamin N’ – helps improve mental and physical health
Kylie Bearse, the morning meteorologist for Fox31 in Denver, says outdoor activities including hiking and skiing are an important part of her mental health regime. During the pandemic she and a friend slowly built up their endurance on hikes until they were hiking 13 miles together in Staunton State Park. (Dave Puente/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Spring, a time when the bluebirds sing – maybe on your shoulder – and the sun cracks the worst of winter’s cold and the air smells like life, can be a time of darkness for Kylie Bearse.

Spring means muddy trails and slushy slopes, a time when both hiking and skiing are difficult and, quite frankly, no fun for Bearse, and yet she needs that time outdoors, and not just because she’s the morning meteorologist for Fox31 News in Denver.

Bearse was 25 when she was diagnosed with anxiety eight years ago. She’s comfortable enough with it now to make amusing observations about her job: People with anxiety need control in their lives, but the one thing no one can control is, of course, the weather. It makes her giggle.

Her anxiety can be crippling. Even though Bearse says, over and over, how much she loves her work, there were days this spring – more than a few – when her job was difficult. “Every day, for a month and a half, I hated going to work and having to smile on TV every day,” she said. “I was tired of pretending to be happy.”

Bearse considers getting outdoors an important part of her mental health regime, in the same way others might jog four times a week to maintain their health and keep their hearts strong. It’s an approach that some health professionals endorse, and some, including Weld County’s health department, are asking doctors to push their patients to spend more time outside.

The great outdoors isn’t a cure-all, some mental health professionals caution, but activities as simple as hiking, bird watching or biking by the river can be a complement to talk therapy and medication.

Bearse’s therapist made the connection for her, after shin splints forced her to quit running half marathons and her anxiety spiked. The therapist said she needed physical activity to slow her racing mind. Bearse loves her spin classes and Pilates, but she also discovered hiking and skiing helped her perhaps as much as talk therapy.

“When my anxiety is the highest,” she said, “I need to unplug and go be in nature. I don’t think I can put a name on exactly why. I just need to be outside. That’s part of my medicine.”

A hike a day ...

In Canada, doctors will prescribe passes to national parks for those struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. In Japan, residents have practiced forest bathing, or meditative walks through tree canopies, since they rose in popularity in the 1980s. It isn’t much of a stretch, then, to consider the logic behind the Outdoor Rx program run by the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment.

The program launched in 2019, before the pandemic, to push the mental health benefits of being in nature. A year later, once we were into isolation, Outdoor Rx received almost too much affirmation from the rest of us when we crushed the outdoors like a shopping mall on Black Friday. As examples, Rocky Mountain National Park had to install a reservation system to cut crowds and restore sanity (as did other national parks), and residents flocked to state parks as well, increasing visitation in them by 25%.

“We’re all about physical activity and nutrition and physical well-being,” health department spokesman Eric Aakko said. “What Rx does is bring a new vitamin to the table. That’s Vitamin N. That’s nature.”

Studies show time in nature reduces blood pressure, anxiety, stress and restores a sense of calm. Some suggest we need the outdoors, treating them as mandatory as daily exercise: Richard Louv’s 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” argued that children’s separation from the natural world was causing “nature deficit disorder,” the root of a host of problems including ADHD, obesity and mental health issues such as anxiety. He has since expanded his thinking to adults.

Olivia Egen, Weld County’s public health initiative supervisor, ran Outdoor Rx at its inception and lobbied doctors to talk to patients about recommending time outside. That work continues with Olga Gonzalez, the healthy eating and active living coordinator.

A skier skins uphill at Loveland Ski Area on March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

“When doctors prescribe or talk to their patients about it, sometimes that’s all the motivation they need to get outside,” Gonzalez said. “Doctors talk about diet and exercise, but we need to go a bit deeper with the patient.”

Aakko, like Bearse, understands the outdoors can be intimidating, unfamiliar or even unwelcoming, especially to groups such as Weld’s large Latino population. And, for what it’s worth, the health department doesn’t necessarily want everyone to climb Longs Peak.

“You don’t have to go run a marathon. You don’t even have to go to a park,” Aakko said. “You can go outside your door and hear the birds and look up at the blue sky.”

Outdoor Rx is a good place to start, with a website profiling the county’s cities and towns and what they offer for open space, parks and trails, as well as tips for heading out beyond your mailbox, such as what to wear and how to recognize signs of bad weather. Egen spent hours working with Weld communities to compile the information. Pro tip: Nearly all other Colorado counties and cities have information via websites on their trails, open spaces and parks and how to access them. So do state parks, the U.S. Forest Service and RMNP.

“People have been blown away by what their communities offered,” Egen said. “They had no idea.”

‘That sounds a lot like me’

Bearse began to suspect she had anxiety when therapists would talk about it during news programs at the first station she worked for in Minnesota.

“Hmm,” she said, imitating herself listening to one of those interviews. “That sounds a lot like me.”

When she turned to a news anchor after a show ended and asked him, privately, if he worried about being fired all the time, and was answered with a quizzical look, she decided to seek help. She now realizes that she’d had anxiety her whole life.

“If I had gotten help in high school, I would have had an entirely different experience,” Bearse said. “In fact I probably did too well.”

Kylie Bearse, the morning meteorologist for Fox31 in Denver, launched a website Approachable Outdoors to help encourage people to make their way onto trails. For her, hiking and skiing are an important part of her mental health regime. (Dave Puente/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Anxiety, after all, does have a few benefits, including a deep drive to get work done and eliminating the worry over it, and it doesn’t always accompany bad times: In April 2021, she left 9News for Fox31 to become a morning meteorologist, what she calls her dream job, but went through one of the worst periods of her life. She had a rough but necessary breakup, and the job was a real triumph for her, so she didn’t fully understand why her anxiety was so bad she couldn’t sleep or eat well.

“My therapist said even good stress is still stress,” she said.

She recovered by following a list she stowed away of things that had helped her through rough times in the past – sleeping and eating well were two of them. She added hiking to the list. During the pandemic, she went three times a week. She and a friend worked their way up to a 13-mile hike, Elk Falls in Staunton State Park, one of her favorite places, by picking a hike that was a mile more than the week before.

“We stayed socially distant for a year, hiking 6 feet apart from each other,” she said. “When we got vaccinated was the first time in a year we got to hug each other. I don’t know if I would have survived the pandemic without the outdoors.”

Around the same time, she started Approachable Outdoors with the help of her brother, who built the website. The site aims to make hiking less intimidating by offering suggestions, routes and tips.

She was self-conscious about it at first. She was a theater kid in high school, not an athlete, and she still calls herself a slow hiker, not an extreme person who eats 14ers for brunch. She found that her attitude was refreshing for those weary of all the blogs and comment boards filled with peak baggers bragging about how they’d “bombed” Longs Peak.

“I felt embarrassed sharing all these short hikes,” Bearse said, “but I discovered there’s a ton of people like me who want to enjoy them.”

She hopes the site helps people work through their fears of the outdoors. But she also wants to use the site to normalize mental health struggles: She occasionally mentions visits to her therapist on the air. When she does, people send her emails or tweets thanking her for empowering them.

All fun, no follow up

Stacy Bare spent many years telling people the outdoors saved his life. He is a war veteran who found rock climbing two years after his return from Iraq. The climbing and other adventures that followed, helped him, as he bluntly puts it, “not kill himself” as a result of the mental health problems that followed him home from war, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

He still believes in the outdoors, calling it “super good” for people. But he also has some regrets about spreading the gospel.

“We have these transformative experiences in the outdoors, and then we think we are healed,” Bare said. “And then we form organizations to try to help others.”

Bare did that, too. He was the director of Sierra Club Outdoors and works now as the executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks in Michigan and as a consultant for organizations working in conservation and in health and wellness related to the outdoors. But his attitude has changed: He later considered the fact that there’s no follow up with veterans once those trips were over. Many suffering from mental health still had a lot of work to do.

Steamboat Springs residents Jason Stephen, left, and Scott Smallish float on their Big Agnes sleeping pads July 20, 2020, at Dome Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Can we use the outdoors? We can,” he said. “But I have failed by creating a narrative that all you need to do is get outside. Maybe that is all you need to do, but what helped me was connecting with people.”

Bare eventually found his way back to traditional therapy and even medication after initially selling people on the idea that the outdoors was enough.

“Campfire therapy is great, but we have to recognize it for what it is,” he said. “My biggest fear is that we actually hurt people. A third had a great time and feel better; a third had their lives transformed; and a third did really well but then we dropped them off without engagement, and they really need more engagement.”

Bare returned from the war in 2007, when resources weren’t there for soldiers unless they had a physical disability, he said. Bare had to find his own way out of the darkness, and the outdoors were there. That’s no longer true: Mental health treatment is still tricky, but there’s a lot more awareness and information about treating mental health, partly as a result of the pandemic.

“We do need people feeling awe. 100%,” Bare said. “But also, 100%, it’s not enough to address the mental health crises in our country.”

Kylie Bearse, the morning meteorologist for Fox31 in Denver, says outdoor activities including hiking and skiing are an important part of her mental health regime. During the pandemic she and a friend slowly built up their endurance on hikes until they were hiking 13 miles together in Staunton State Park. (Dave Puente/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bearse relies on therapy and, occasionally, medications to help her as much as the outdoors. She knows now that it’s OK to feel sad. When she does, she will watch a sad movie and cry, or bawl on the trail with a girlfriend.

“There’s no exact way to say, ‘Here’s how you are feeling better,’” Bearse said.

Bearse is in a good place now. It’s summer. She’s off meds and spent many hours outside, including a recent trip to Vail, where she camped – more like glamped – in a bougie outdoor setting, complete with a bed. She’s an extrovert and loves it when people who recognize her come up to say hello. She’s also learned how to sometimes pull herself out of a funk. Sometimes, when she’s forced to smile on camera, it makes her feel better.

She also knows hiking gives her strength and recalls one trip to Lake Isabelle in the Brainard Lake Wilderness Area, high above Boulder.

“You’re forced to breathe,” she said. “I feel a weight is lifted off my shoulders.”

Her legs hurt, she said with a laugh. But her head was clear.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.