Women don’t spend as much time as men outdoors. That’s a problem.
I was fortunate to grow up hiking and camping in California, and backpacking in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and the canyons of Utah. Spending time outdoors helped me learn to take pride in my body’s physical abilities and find a sense of peace in nature. I have continued to make an effort to hike and run outdoors throughout college as a way to support my physical and mental health. As I have gotten older, however, I have come to realize what a unique privilege it is to engage in outdoor activities that are often only available to affluent white people and, more specifically, wealthy white men.
This summer I am working as an intern for Outward Bound Costa Rica, a nonprofit experiential educational organization that provides students and adults of all ages with opportunities to hike, surf, scuba dive, whitewater raft, and more while giving back to indigenous and local communities across Costa Rica and Panama. While many outdoor education programs are financially inaccessible, Outward Bound Costa Rica provides scholarships based on financial need and is one of the most affordable outdoor adventure abroad options. But perhaps most impressive of all is the program’s partnership with the Girl Scouts of the USA to specifically provide girls ages 13-18 with these unique outdoor experiences.
Providing girls and women with meaningful outdoor experiences is important considering the male domination of outdoor activities. Starting as young as preschool, girls are 16 percent less likely than boys their age to be taken outside to play by their parents, and girls’ activity levels continue to decrease as they get older.
Girls and women of all ages also tend to spend less time outside and engage less in physical activity than their male peers, which often correlates to reduced physical health. It’s well documented that lower activity levels can contribute to obesity, and could help explain why girls are overweight and obese more often than boys. During their teenage years, women develop their peak bone mass, which helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life, so physical activity is crucial during this time. Less time playing outside can also lead to less exposure to microorganisms, which could contribute to the higher rates of atopic and autoimmune diseases in females.
Rates of physical activity also become increasingly important for girls’ mental health as they mature. Not only does physical activity help protect against mental health problems including anxiety, depression, and body image issues, but it is also an important method of staying off technology. Women are both less physically active than men and more prone to becoming smart-phone dependent, which can increase anxiety. According to a study of 2,010 women in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 35, women view the outdoors as a way to escape societal pressures and want more time outside, with 72 percent of women feeling liberated outdoors. Yet, in 2013 and 2014, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails had a 2.2:1 male-to-female ratio of hikers — just one indication that men are engaging in outdoor activities more frequently than women.
Although there are a wide variety of outdoor physical activities for girls and women to choose from, participating in an adventure-based learning course like the ones offered by Outward Bound Costa Rica in a different country, climate, and culture creates a unique and exciting experience with the potential to inspire a lifestyle change. The physical and mental health of girls and women affect every aspect of their lives. In order to thrive socially, academically, and professionally, girls and women need to prioritize their physical and mental health.
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