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If Covid and quarantine stress did a number on your numbers, you're living in just the right place at the right time if you're my neighbor.

Before we take on the challenge of getting back in shape, perhaps it might be kinder to get our hearts and minds in better shape first. The RX is all around us, all the time.

Two months ago the American Psychological Association published a study of some 3000 Americans which showed that the stress of being under quarantine and all the associated challenges placed upon us by quarantine had some less-than desired side effects. Some six out of ten adults reported undesirable weight loss or gain, with Millennials reporting the most weight gain of all the groups surveyed: forty-one pounds.

Well, you're in good company if this was you. However, if you live near me up here in Eugene, you're in very good shape, maybe not your body right now, but you are in the perfect place to get two things taken care of: your body AND your stress levels. At the same time.

My sports chiropractor, Kevin Plummer, reported that a large part of his burgeoning practice is for people who are just about to head back out hiking, biking and running, but their bodies are suddenly wearing a lot more than typical winter weight. As I've reported previously, those extra pounds put terrible pressure on the spine, and when we add to that the additional demands of running, we could potentially do terrible damage, particularly if we don't treat our heavy emotional hearts with regard.

In other words, using the healing nature of Nature to calm those parts of ourselves which caused us to stress eat or starve in the first place, before we try to get first place in our annual fun run. So, in effect, we could sideline ourselves even longer after having been sidelined for a year already. That adds yet an additional layer of stress on what's already been a very difficult year.

If you're a stress-snacker like I am, that means we could potentially pound down even more pounds-inducing food, which will stress us out even more. That's what a vicious cycle looks like.

To that then, I'd like to offer a few remedies. As eager as so many of us are to tackle the harder hills that even a year ago felt easy, let's rethink the program. First, the stress, including the very real stress you and I feel when we're forced to go up a size on the hiking shorts at REI.

Up here in Oregon you and I couldn't be better positioned to reduce that stress with just a two-hour commitment a week. This article explains how spending just that little time in Nature's embrace will go a long way towards allowing us to let go of what worries us. From the article:

A study  looked at data from a U.K. government survey that asked nearly 20,000  people in the U.K. to track their activities for a week. Those who spent  two hours in nature, whether that happened in one trip or several  smaller visits to a park, were significantly more likely to report  better health and well-being than those who spent less time outside.  After about 200 to 300 total minutes outside, the effect peaked.      

If you're one of my immediate neighbors right here in Eugene, being outside often means simply walking out your front door. I moved to Eugene last year for this very reason, and chose the house I am living in right now precisely because being in Nature means walking out the door into my yard. I am surrounded by rain forest and fir trees in every direction. I have close-in neighbors, but especially right now, the newly-leafed trees provide a sweet buffer to the noises of nearby traffic and forest work, which are endless.

The Fast Company article also points out that while my late afternoon run down Timberline, a jog that takes me past dense forests and tree-lined parks, is useful, the exercise is an additional benefit to simply being in nature. Again from the article:

The benefits were separate from any exercise that people got while  outside. “The exercise is good in and of itself,” he says. “This is the  benefit on top. And one way we know that is because a big proportion of  our sample are not exercising—let alone in a park—and they’re still  showing benefits to the health and well-being from sitting down and  having picnics and that kind of stuff.”      

Especially as you and ease back into the world at large, especially if we're larger, the point here is to be outside first, and get some of that pent-up stress released. Then, as we feel better and better, as Dr. Plummer would advise, we can also ease back into our exercise routines.

The one thing we don't want to do is treat the gorgeous natural beauty that is our gift of living in Oregon as just one more source of stress, in HAVING to regain our numbers and fitness levels from last year as quickly as possible. That ends up making our Mother, Mother Nature that is, just another task master, rather than a place to regain our sense of humor and balance.

Eric Muir for Unsplash

As a newcomer here, people I met last year first directed me to the uber-popular and well-cared-for Spencer's Butte just south of town. That's a relatively easy mile up and down, with various doglegs and connections to the superbly well-maintained Ridgeline trail system that traverses the local hills.

It can and does get crowded but these days, with mask mandates lifted for being outside if you and I are vaccinated, the crowds are no longer an issue, as long as you're spaced out and especially if you're moving. What I love best about this hike is the tree cover. That hike is what ultimately charmed me so much about moving to Oregon where such beauty is in abundance and well within a short drive of town.

If you're in the market for a picnic spot, easy hikes and just the joy of being in the spring sun in this part of the world, Eugene is perfectly designed for that kind of outing.

To get you started, here is a list of seven terrific parks in and around Eugene:

The 7 Best Parks in Eugene, Oregon | Outdoor Activities
Plan an afternoon spent in one of the best parks in Eugene, Oregon. Enjoy Hendricks Park, Skinner Butte, Oakmont Park, and more.

Of the above, the one that interests me is Skinner Butte Park, which offers me a chance to rekindle my love of stair running. For years I trained at Red Rocks Amphitheater near Lakewood, but there's nothing quite like that anywhere else. Here, Skinner Butte offers in-city climbing, and plenty of opportunities to run stairs and train those legs for harder hikes.  Plummer heads there to train on the stairs, especially after some of the professional training facilities closed down to public use.

To that, you can make those visits as restful or as challenging as they need to be. If you've slacked off for winter, taking the easy route first is a good idea, according to Plummer.

As I have learned my city, I found another walk just around the corner from me off Bertelsen Road. Wild Iris Ridge Park is a short jog from my house and another way to add variety to my outdoor pursuits without having to drive many miles. It's not as popular- or busy- as Spencer's Butte, and doesn't have the tree cover, but it's another kind of hike that adds miles to your muscles while getting you out in the open and breathing the sweet spring air.

Most of us here in Oregon, and  many who moved here from other states known for their active outdoor cultures as I did from Colorado, already know the healing benefits of being outside. The additional challenge right now, though, is to really engage with that healing aspect to allow us to move more fully back into life after the pandemic before we throw ourselves willy-nilly into trying to pry off pandemic pounds as a kind of torture. That makes a hike a hefty burden as opposed to one of the single best things you and I can do for our heads and our hearts as well as our waistlines. The immediate health benefits of spending time outside to take in the stupendous beauty of this area are considerable.

The study confirms that just under eighteen minutes outside every day can take away so much of the stress we carry. When we do that, then the challenge of regaining previous fitness levels or even begin a brand new program becomes a great deal easier. It's then an extension of pleasurable time in the open as opposed to yet one more item to tick off the to-do list.

The great beauty of Oregon is that a to-do list here in Eugene means that if your list means you need to head out, you're already surrounded by beauty. That said, once a day it might make sense to stop by one of the parks and just sit for a few minutes and let Nature do her magic. To that, then, if you need company, please see this:

These meetups offer the full range, from folks who really like to move out to those who prefer to mosey. The social benefit will do you a lot of good, too, finally being able to see folk's faces. Particularly folks who are smiling, happy and grateful to be breathing normally and without a mask.

Nature hikes, bike rides and gentle walks really are what the doctor ordered. Increasingly, as with vegetables and fruits, that's precisely what's happening: doctors are writing us scripts for better habits.  From the article:

Doctors in some health centers are already beginning to “prescribe”  nature to patients; in Scotland, for example, the National Health  Service in the Shetland Islands recommends walks on the beach and other  outdoor activities.

Here in Eugene, the beach is 90 minutes away. However, if you just need to be around water, the great McKenzie runs through town, and there are plenty of places to enjoy the healing sounds of running river waters.

Got stress? Got stress weight? Head outside. As the stress reduces, there's a good chance your fitness will come back too, especially if you take it a step at a time. Like the proverbial apple, barely twenty minutes once a day in the healing embrace of Nature might well do you a lot of good.

And with that, I'm heading out for a run.