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How Trails and Outdoor Access Provide Important Mental Health Benefits - Rails to Trails

By Cory Matteson

Included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website pages dedicated to COVID-19 is a section about the potential effects of the coronavirus on our mental health. “Pandemics can be stressful,” it reads.


Indeed. Fear about a new disease. Concern about the health of your loved ones and your own health too. Instability and insecurity around finances and jobs. The isolation that comes along with proper social distancing. The CDC lists all of those as reasons why anxiety can build during the coronavirus. How many people read that and thought, "Check, check, check …."?


One significant way millions of Americans are addressing their mental health needs during the coronavirus is through frequent activity in the outdoors. In Lincoln, Nebraska, where I live, the city’s robust trail system has been packed with more bicyclists, inline skaters, runners and walkers than I’d ever encountered before in a spring trail season. In fact, the Great Plains Trail Network (GPTN)—comprising more than two dozen trails spanning over 131 miles—was compelled, like many trail systems across the country, to issue cycling etiquette reminders to recent trail converts in the newspaper after trail use surged.


A recent Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) survey shows that quite a few people across the country are seeking out trails for stress relief during the pandemic. Forty-six percent of the respondents said that access to open spaces had reduced stress levels during the pandemic, and 66% of respondents said they were getting outside at the same level or greater than before the coronavirus.


“It's as important as ever for people to know that when everything is out of control, one thing you can control is [going outdoors and taking] advantage of natural resources,” said Dr. Sam Zizzi, a psychologist who serves as the Co-Director for The Center for ActiveWV in West Virginia.


One minor blessing about the coronavirus, said Zizzi, is that at least it didn’t start in November—and people in frigid climates didn’t have to wait months to spend valuable time outside. But it was still pretty cold in Morgantown, where Zizzi lives, in mid-March, when social distancing measures went into effect, and businesses, schools and everything else began closing.


“I think there was pent-up energy there after a few weeks,” said Zizzi, who is also a professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University. “People weren't going to work. You had this lack of a difference in your environment. I was noticing it immediately.”


Once it warmed up, he and his family were out the door—taking family walks on the nearby Mon River Rail-Trail System—an award-winning trail system recently inducted into RTC’s Rail-Trail Hall of Fame—and visiting forests and state parks.


“For many, many years, I have used physical activity for mental health,” he said. “It was just a natural thing for me and for us to do that.”


Zizzi teaches his students that, for many people, getting outside and being active offers both “prevention of increased stress of becoming mentally ill perhaps, and treatment if you are a person who experiences clinical anxiety or … that is diagnosed with depression. I think it can go both ways for sure.”


At The Center for ActiveWV, the staff promotes simple forms of physical activity in an effort to get more children and adults in the state to meet or exceed national physical health recommendations. A 2018 study found that 28.5% of West Virginian adults didn’t participate in physical activity or exercise in their spare time.


“We're not trying to encourage people to go hike mountains,” said Zizzi. “We're really trying to get people to walk more and take advantage of what we have in West Virginia, which are a lot of green environments. In COVID, we wanted to hit on the fact that this is a really big mental health issue—more so because people are experiencing all this anxiety, the stress about being home with your kids, the stress about jobs, finances.”


Even being on trails, or in green space or blue space, can be beneficial regardless of your physical activity during that time. To that end, Zizzi is a proponent of forest bathing, citing the physiological benefits measured in a Japanese study of urban dwellers. Taking people from the city out to the forest, and encouraging them to take in smells and sounds, led to improved stress responses that lasted days and weeks longer than the time they spent in nature. As little as two hours spent in nature has been shown to provide lasting effects. Zizzi and a colleague, Christiaan Abildso, discussed with an NPR affiliate a few years back.


In that same conversation with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, they also spoke about a significant lack of access to green spaces in rural West Virginia.


“The research I have done with my colleagues around here is it is all about connectivity,” Zizzi said. “So you can have beautiful trail access points, but if you can't get there safely—no crossings, no bridges—it's a huge barrier, even for people who live super close to that resource.”


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