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Behavior Change
REI Again Urging Americans to #OptOutside, Studying Link to Human Health

For the fourth year in a row, this Black Friday, REI will close all 153 stores, process no online payments and pay more than 12,000 employees to #OptOutside with friends and family.

For the fourth year in a row, this Black Friday, REI will close all 153 stores, process no online payments and pay more than 12,000 employees to #OptOutside with friends and family.

Since 2015, 15 million people and more than 700 organizations have joined the #OptOutside movement — REI’s effort to inspire people to do something other than consume. This year, REI is also pledging $1 million toward the launch of a new center of academic excellence at the University of Washington (UW) that will study the link between human health and time spent outdoors.

“The best data we have says that, in any given year, 150 million Americans don’t spend any time outside; that’s half the country. Day in, day out, we’re looking down instead of up, looking at our phones instead of the world around us,” says REI CEO Jerry Stritzke. “We’re asking people this year to reevaluate that picture of themselves. To see technology as the starting point to a journey outside, not the destination. And to go explore the world with someone they love — on Black Friday and every day.”

Last year, REI released a report called The Path Ahead, which examined humanity’s “long march indoors” that began around the year 2010; today, the average US citizen spends 95 percent of his or her life — 74 years, on average — indoors.

To help make the case for spending more time outside, REI and UW are launching a new initiative called Nature for Health. The new center of academic excellence within the university’s EarthLab will broaden and deepen its examination of how time outside impacts our health. It will build on existing bodies of work and explore new ideas — such as whether a dose of nature can be prescribed alongside traditional medicine to tackle issues such as anxiety and depression. This partnership between REI UW grew out of years of collaboration among university researchers and leaders in the outdoor, nonprofit and governmental communities.

“We know there is a link between time spent in nature and our health and well-being. We are working to close the knowledge gap so we fully understand the benefits,” said Joshua J. Lawler, head of Nature for Health and the Denman Professor of Sustainable Resource Sciences at the University of Washington. “We’ll then work in close partnership with practitioners and decision-makers to use this information to do things like lower healthcare costs, design better schools and hospitals, and reduce disparities in health and well-being.”

REI is an active investor in the growing body of research establishing the link between health and nature. The co-op has already invested more than $1 million into efforts by UW, Sierra Club, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital’s Center for Nature and Health, and the Oregon Public Health Institute to understand how time outside impacts anxiety levels, ability to focus, childhood development, happiness and other health factors.

Among the findings so far:

  • A seminal literature review by a range of UW experts noted that, while more research is needed, “Nature contact offers promise both as prevention and as treatment across the life course. Potential advantages include low costs relative to conventional medical interventions, safety, practicality, not requiring dispensing by highly trained professionals, and multiple co-benefits. Few medications can boast these attributes.”
  • Dr. Nooshin Razani at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland has found that a park prescription — a physician’s recommendation to spend time outdoors — can reduce stress among low-income patients
  • In June, a peer-reviewed study by the Great Outdoors Lab (a collaboration between the Sierra Club and US Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center) concluded that getting outdoors improves physical, mental and social well-being; and that the emotion of awe experienced in nature is an important mechanism driving these effects. These benefits can be especially helpful, for instance, in assisting war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The cohort that participated in outdoor group activities reported improvements in self-confidence, diminished reliance on medications and alcohol, and more.

“The best researchers in the world are proving the case that getting outside is critical to our mental and our physical well-being,” Stritzke says. “It’s time to rethink time outdoors as a must-have, not a nice-to-have.”

The range of benefits to health and well-being from time in nature will be the topic at a second-annual, daylong symposium on October 24 at the University of Washington; as well as remarks by noted author Richard Louv, who will be delivering the second Doug Walker Memorial lecture at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, that evening. Both events are hosted by UW’s EarthLab and co-sponsored by REI.