Steamboat’s access to the outdoors provided mental health boost during pandemic

Liz Handing, left, and her father Larry Handing embark on a Saturday morning walk up Blackmer Trail on Emerald Mountain. Liz said working from home during the pandemic allowed her to get outside more often throughout the day, something she hopes to continue even if work hours return to normal.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday and the loop at the Blackmer trailhead on Emerald Mountain in Steamboat Springs is packed with cars. Dog walkers come down the trail as fat bikers ride up, and skiers collect gear from their car.

Daughters walk with fathers, young men bike and older women skin.

“This is our time away from our kids,” a pair of mothers said, waving as they passed each other up the trail.

Twenty minutes at the trailhead offers a glimpse into the lives of many Steamboat Springs residents. The people here are active and versatile in their activities of choice and devoted to finding time to be outside.

Humans, particularly those in Steamboat, seem to intrinsically know that being outside is good for us. Even if we can’t put a finger on why, we know it makes us feel good.

“I think it’s human nature,” said Doctor Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist with UCHealth. “Humans have a strong connection to nature and a strong desire to be outside and a strong desire to explore. Finding environments that hit all of those needs allows us to live a life that’s vibrant and full of vitality.”

It’s become common knowledge that being outdoors improves our mental health, but there’s really no official reason why that is. That being said, there are pages upon pages of research showing the mental and physical benefits of nature.

Spending time in green spaces lowers stress and can decrease blood pressure and improves mood. One study showed that just 20 minutes in a park improved people’s subjective well-being. And time spent in green spaces as a youth can reduce the chance of adolescents developing psychiatric disorders.

Nathan Eldridge catches some air while riding his mountain bike at the Bear River BMX track in early May. The park was one of many in Steamboat Springs that reopened to the public as pandemic restrictions continue to ease. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Dr. Ross said he prescribes time in the outdoors to everyone he knows. The time spent outside doesn’t require exercise, although that helps. Simply immersing oneself in greenery does the trick.

“In Japan, they have a concept called shinrin-yoku, the translation is forest bathing,” said Dr. Ross. “It’s incredible. They really value this concept of spending time in nature, and they put scientific rigor on top of it where they are measuring things, physiological markers of stress and cardiovascular function. What they’re finding is that after time spent in nature, it’s showing what we all intuitively know to be true, we feel better.”

The Steamboat effect

Steamboat residents are already a different breed, getting out and pushing their bodies to the limit or just enjoying a walk on the Yampa River Core Trail.

Just months into the pandemic, it was clear that people across the state and the nation knew being outdoors was a safe and healthy option both physically and mentally. They sought to escape to places like the Yampa Valley.

Bikes were flying off the shelves as people expanded their skills and gear closets. When they became available, campsites were booked out for months, and even in the cold weather, Yampatika snowshoe tours were filling up faster than ever. Even with restaurants and stores at limited capacity and no events and fewer activities, visitors flocked to Steamboat for all its recreation options.

Steamboat resident Jean Wernig, 64, who owns an Airbnb, has seen her guests antsier than ever for a getaway.

“When my guests come up here from Denver, it’s like they’re getting out of jail,” Wernig said. “They can’t wait to get here.”

Larry Handing, a longtime Steamboat resident, is an active individual. He’s retired and spends a lot of time running, walking, biking and fishing, and he’s spending more time on those pursuits since the pandemic started.

Mike Chessnoe, 78, runs along the Yampa River Core Trail on March 14, 2020. The popular path in Steamboat Springs was crowded all year as locals sought ways to safely get out of their homes. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

“(Going outside has) given me the freedom to feel free,” he said. “I’ve been outdoors all the time. We are in a nice mountain area, so we have the benefits of not feeling consumed as some urban areas.”

That feeling of freedom is one of three psychological benefits that Coloradans enjoy because they have such easy access to outdoor spaces.

“Living in Colorado, we are very privileged to have access to the outdoors to the extent that we do. I think that’s been really helpful for a lot of us getting through this,” Dr. Ross said. “Psychologically, it’s had a few factors. One, it gives us a sense of autonomy. … We feel like we can take care of things on our own that we’re in control and in charge.”

When the world fell into a state of uncertainty and abrupt change, one of the few things people could control was how often they could get outside.

Handing walked with his daughter Liz, a 31-year-old researcher who suddenly had the chance to take a walk on their lunch break or go for a bike ride between Zoom meetings.

“It’s been nice working from home,” she said. “I can take breaks to get outside and feel like I can break up my workday, whether it’s a 10-minute walk, a 30-minute run. That time throughout the day that you can get outside.”

The surge of people spending time in green spaces will likely be a permanent societal change brought on by the pandemic.

“It saved my sanity,” said Denise Anderson, 45, a Smartwool employee. “I mean, that’s why we live here right, is to play outside. The ability to keep that going.”

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