by Kristin Armstrong
Illustration by Jessica Fontenot
I have never been a gym girl. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll go. I know it’s good for me. We all need strong bones, especially as we get older, and it’s not a bad thing to postpone bingo arms (aka that aging tricep wing). I can enjoy a spin class, especially if my friend Maria is teaching. It’s not that I mind the weights or the music or the people, per se.
It’s just that I associate exercise with fresh air and natural light. To me, exercise is fun — or should be. It’s the closest thing to “play” we get as grown-ass people. It’s like the difference between the playground versus indoor recess for my inner child — no contest. I love the way the breeze hits my face, the way the humidity makes me sweat and the way the sunlight filters through the trees on the greenbelt or along the lake. I love the packs of UT athletes and runners training with Gilbert, the way they pass by in a fit stampede, a rush of energy that creates its own current. You can feel it, electric on your skin. I love the way the sunlight looks different depending on the time of year, varying degrees of gold. I love to inhale the unmistakable scent of rain, and the way each season carries a smell — cut grass, pollen, decaying leaves, sunscreen by the rowing dock. I like the way it feels different on a weekday or a weekend, at the dark crack of dawn or post-school-drop-off hour, the way it’s a different community depending on the time of day. It can be Type A runners hastily glancing down at beeping Garmins, young parents pushing baby joggers, families riding bikes or walking their dog, or older women wearing capris and carrying Starbucks, walking and cackling with their friends — reminding me that life outside at any age is always good.
We get so stuck on our have-tos that we forget our get-tos. We forget to go play. We forget what we love to do. We do so much and so often that we forget to be.
I love how you can experience a 20-degree temperature change on a run in Texas. Or feel the wind picking up and the crackling atmospheric anxiety of a storm brewing. There is nothing like watching the panorama of clouds turning ominous and lightning streaks like a line graph across the darkened sky while hurrying back to your car. I love the little-known fact that Lady Bird Lake can get white caps, if you are crazy enough to be out there to witness them. Or the way a flood can leave tiny fish and frogs strewn across the gushy wet trail. My friend Paige threw handfuls of them back into the river very early one morning. I didn’t even try to tell her it wasn’t worth it, that she wasn’t making an impact. Because I knew she would tell me it mattered to that one, and she was right.
My favorite gift from Paige is time, and sometimes we make an All-Day Run. It means run all day, from school drop-off to pickup (I have no one to drive anymore, but she does), and stop for food along the way. We have run to Tacodeli for tacos, even run through the drive-through at P. Terry’s for a cheeseburger and a Coke, which we inhaled greedily and kept on going. Please don’t get the idea we are in a rush. We are noodling through town, through neighborhoods and the UT campus and on the East Side. We are enjoying each other, savoring having time to finish conversation threads and knit them together. We can run in silence, we can talk for hours. It’s all good, simply because it’s all good.
In our culture, we get so stuck. Stuck to our jobs, our responsibilities, our roles and relationships, our schedules, our computers, our social media, our freaking phones. We get so stuck on our have-tos that we forget our get-tos. We forget to go play. We forget what we love to do. We do so much and so often that we forget to be. We forget that being outside is not a luxury; it’s a necessity of being human.
As a new therapist, I watch my supervisor take her adolescent clients outside. They take off their shoes together and walk barefoot in the grass, under the trees, and scrunch their toes in the dirt. This used to be a daily part of childhood. Now it’s called grounding, and it’s considered therapeutic. Kids aren’t the only ones who don’t go outside enough anymore. They aren’t the only ones anxiety-ridden, depressed, stressed and obsessed with the life that lives inside their phone.
We wonder why we feel so good on vacation. Maybe it’s not so much being away, as it is being outside? Breakfast outside, beach walks, mountain hikes, fresh air, taking in a sunset or simply taking our time. We wonder why we sleep so much better or feel so deeply connected with our partner, or our family.
Being outside helps us to feel connected on the inside.
Outside is not a time, space or activity reserved for kids, playgrounds, outdoorsmen, athletes, weekends or vacations. Time in nature is necessary. Cultivate it. Claim it.
In doing so, we cultivate and reclaim ourselves.