How Spending Time Outside on Purpose Helps Heal This Surprising Problem

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I think about time outside as a privilege — going outside is something I get to do.

But not everyone is so lucky.

For many, spending time outside is something that happens because they have no other choice. That’s because when you don’t have a home or are piecing together places to stay, spending time outside might be your only option.


Suddenly, the outside doesn’t sound so nice, does it?

Homelessness is a complicated subject and is often the symptom of other problems, like addiction and mental health battles. And in the thick of the fight against it are organizations and passionate experts taking it on through creative methods.

For podcast guest Elizabeth Carr, that method includings pushing the homeless clients with which works to spend more time outside on.

But instead of doing it because they have no where else to go, she has them do it on purpose — while running.

Related: Episode 7: Nature, Homelessness and Health (Elizabeth Carr)

When we interviewed Carr for the podcast, she was working with the nonprofit organization Back On My Feet, which combats homlessness using “using running as the catalyst to get our members going, literally and figuratively,” she said. And while she is no longer working there, her passion still lies with fighting homelessness, which she now does as a gifts officer at a local shelter.

Why does spending time moving outside help homelessness? Here’s what Carr taught us.

1. It teaches dedication.

Back On My Feet functions a lot like a running club, Carr said, including those early morning hours many runners know well. And like a running club, it includes consistent meetings.

“We have them come out and run with us three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — generally at 5:45 in the morning,” she said. “And once they’ve done three runs with us, we outfit them head to toe with brand new gear, everything they need. So we get them completely fitted with new shoes and all the tech gear they need for running. So in the winter, we have hats and jackets and pants, in the summer we have shorts.”

But Back On My Feet doesn’t just offer runs. And through coming consistently to the runs, she said, the clients show they are interested in putting in hard work, a signal that they’re ready for the next step, what Carr calls the program’s “meat:” homes and job help.

2. It teaches perseverance.

Ever tried to do a hard new thing? It takes actually wanting to. It takes showing up. It takes trying. It takes work.

That’s true about running, and it’s true about recovery from the hard stuff in life — the kind of stuff that can lead to homelessness like addiction and incarceration, Carr said.

“We work them up so that they’re running consistently with us for a month. After they’ve done that, it really proves to us that they’re putting in a super ton of hard work,” she said. “I think that our members really understand that completely changing your life is no small or simple task. And so, you know, we just remind them that it’s going to be hard.”

3. It teaches consistency.

It’s one thing to show-up and put in the hard work for a day or even a month. It’s another to do it day over day, month over month on a long term basis. That’s true for finding the benefit of spending time outside, it’s true for fitness and running and it’s true for battling homelessness.

As the organization works to help members get jobs, any needed education and housing, its members are consistently checking in and showing up through the runs, mirroring the patterns they’re trying to establish in their lives through the act of coming out for runs.

“All this time, they’re still running with us. So they’re working on consistency, building goals, goal setting, and community,” she said.

Related: How My Own Kid Schooled Me on Being Human

4. It shows that you don’t have to go it alone.

Doing hard things outside is, well, hard. But doing them with a wingman — someone to push you forward, lift your attitude when things get tough and remind you of who you are and why you’re there — is easier.

For the Back on My Feet clients and runners, it’s all about community. That’s because community doesn’t just help with tackling challenges outside, it helps with recovery.

“It’s this whole big community, right? We really take that to the nth degree by saying, this is your support structure, this is your circle,” Carr said. “But guess what: we’re all doing our own version of hard, whatever that may be. And so for somebody, it may be walking a mile straight for the first time in their life and for somebody else it might be getting through, you know, that 15 miler. You just never know what somebody’s going through, but you can relate to the same struggle.”

Building community, she said, is about showing each other that you are never alone and about never leaving each other behind.

“No person is left behind. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a walker, it doesn’t matter if you’re a speed demon. We all start and finish together. And just learning everybody’s different backgrounds and stories. We’re all there for the same purpose, which is really why most people love running clubs, right?” she said. “It’s like built-in instant friends who like doing the same things as you. But in this case, it’s also people who are experiencing the same kind of hardship. And so you look around and you go — wow, I’m not alone. Like, I’m really not alone.”

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