Health Care and the Outdoor Industry: Get together already

I spent the last two days in Palm Springs, California at the Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) as part of a group assembled by Spike TV and CHMI for Veterans Operation Wellness. Specifically, I was talking about the power of the outdoors to help heal -- not in some fluffy abstract sense, but in the same way we talk about medicine healing the body and mind -- real results. The week prior, I was at the Outdoor Retailer (OR) show in Salt Lake City, UT. As I sat in the crowd at CHMI I imagined the visual and audible dissonance that would transpire if both gatherings were to somehow collide. Few, if any at OR would wear a suit coat while no plaid was present at CHMI. No one at OR was discussing the cost of health care to society, while none at CHMI were discussing the best climbing routes in nearby Joshua Tree.

Both groups, however, need to start paying attention to one another and engaging in joint action. Each group has something the other one desperately wants and needs. The health care sector wants to find ways of halting rising costs of care and turning back the expanding number of individuals with chronic health conditions like diabetes and obesity. The outdoor industry needs America to take them more seriously as despite a $6.8 million contribution to the US economy, outdoor jobs are not tracked by the Department of Labor and the industry as a whole has not figured out how to replace its consumer base when predominately white, Baby Boomers are no longer buying the bulk of market share.

Listening to the panelists at CHMI I learned American health care is incredibly wasteful and not ultimately all that effective. An estimated $800 million is spent with no real measurable outcome in the American system. Its waste is roughly equal to our education budget. We have a system based on episodic issues, not chronic ones and count procedures given to a patient without sharing the data amongst providers. This creates redundancy in the system and deprioritizes an outcomes based approach in favor of simply calling for more procedures. Healthcare companies want to change that.

On the other hand, the lack of tracking of jobs and economic data for the outdoor industry by the Department of Labor means other sectors that compete for use on the same lands where we recreate like oil, gas, mining, timber, and even housing and vehicular transportation are often given a higher priority in land use planning over outdoor recreation, parks, and trails.

Being able to prove that time outdoors is an effective preventative healthcare measure for chronic issues like diabetes and obesity or an effective intervention for mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and combating the negative impacts of poverty can help us reframe outdoor recreation into healthcare. There is a massive body of literature that exists, including many diverse religious texts, that at least anecdotally, show the power of outdoors to be a truism. We shouldn't need to build another wing of a hospital or cafeteria. We should only need to expand the ease of responsible access to our myriad public lands while increasing park space opportunities in urban areas.

To get there, however, we need to do the scientific research, collect strong biometric data and prove the point. It is happening already at a small level. The leaders of the outdoor industry and the healthcare industry could and should massively expand the amount, type, and breadth of research in the outdoors and all for what seemingly should be far less than the cost of another round of drug testing.

And yes, there are side effects to time outdoors: an increased sense of awe, community, experience, connection and even the occasional life changing experience. Being outside however, will not impair your ability to drive or operate machinery. No need to consult your physician about going outside -- start with a walk around your block or a trip to your local gear store.

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