Health: Collaboration Aims To Get People Walking Outdoors

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Health

Walkers enjoy conservation land in Harwich.  FILE PHOTO

Our natural environment here on Cape Cod is a gift, and what could be better than getting fit in the beautiful outdoors?

This is the idea behind a Healthy Parks, Healthy People collaboration between Cape Cod Healthcare and the Cape Cod National Seashore.

On an as yet to be scheduled Saturday in July, Cape Cod Healthcare cardiologist Elissa Thompson and a park ranger will again team up for a two-mile ranger-guided trail walk after a short talk by Thompson at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham. The event will be repeated in October. The three-part initiative is called “Talk and Walk with a Doc.”

“We’re lucky to have a picturesque place such as the National Seashore,” Thompson said in a telephone interview last week. When you walk outdoors, your “overall sense of well-being will improve. There is no downside.”

Healthy Parks, Healthy People is a global movement that “harnesses the power of parks and public lands as a health resource,” according to the National Park Service website. It promotes the idea that all parks “are cornerstones of people’s physical, mental, and spiritual health, social well-being and sustainability of the planet.” Around the time of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, parks promoted health and well being — not just beautiful scenery — as they looked toward the park system’s second century.

The Cape Cod National Seashore is younger than the National Park Service and celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2021. On Aug. 7, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore “to preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Cod for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States.” Today the seashore, which covers about 44,000 acres in six towns, draws over four million visitors annually.

These days, when children — and adults — spend less time outdoors than past generations did, and are sometimes described as suffering from “nature deficit disorder,” a plan promoting parks as a health resource is welcome. The program works through healthcare leaders and others at the local level in introducing people to the health benefits of over 400 national parks.

On May 21 Thompson paired up with Interpretive Ranger Michael Raymonds to kick off “Talk and Walk with a Doc.” Thompson, who joined Cape Cod Healthcare in 2014, said the 9 a.m. talk and the walk that followed were “very well attended.” Later talks will focus on the park as a cornerstone for human and environmental health as well as on nutrition and mindfulness. The talks and walks are free and open to the public with no registration required.

Cape Codders, like other Americans, face an increase of major health problems associated with weight. These include heart disease, diabetes, childhood obesity and hypertension.

Thompson’s talk was called “The Cardiovascular Benefits of Outdoor Exercise.” She told the group that in addition to mental health benefits, walking lowers your blood pressure and lowers or normalizes blood glucose levels, BMI and cholesterol. “I can’t underscore enough how important it is to exercise,” she adds. A lack of exercise can cause inflammation and a host of other poor health outcomes.

And why walk outdoors, as opposed to on a treadmill at a gym or in your home?

“The psyche is important as well,” Thompson says. Also, especially in our northern climate, we need some exposure to sunshine to allow our bodies to convert inactive Vitamin D to active Vitamin D for bone strength and other functions.

“I recommend people go out in the sunlight unprotected for a short period of time,” Thompson says. “It’s important to expose oneself to some sunlight during the day.”

Following her talk, Thompson answered questions from participants. Also, Raymonds spoke about the trail the walkers would follow.

In late 2014 Cape Cod Healthcare began a partnership with the National Seashore, planning collaborative events that began in the spring and summer of 2015. The Healthy Parks, Healthy People program took a different form in the years 2020 and 2021, “given the restraints of the pandemic,” Thompson said. The group hosted a virtual 5K race in 2020 while last year’s was in person.

Getting outdoors is all the more vital now, as during the pandemic many people were forced to stay inside for prolonged periods of time — “and that’s bad,” Thompson says. The park is easy to get to, free to walk through, and near people’s homes. Walking there can provide a “great reintroduction of the world of the outdoors and being with other people.”

While many of the people who attended the first Talk and Walk were Cape Cod’s year-rounders and snow birds, in July the Talk and Walk will introduce the Cape’s visitors to the seashore’s hiking, variety of terrain, animals and plants, Thompson says.

“It’s one of the greatest things — a safe, clean and beautiful environment to promote health and well being,” Thompson says. “It’s important that you don’t have to go to a gym to be healthy. You don’t have to pay a fee. The open road and a flat surface and sneakers are all you need.”