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Mike Rosmann, Published July 12 2013

Rosmann: Is outdoor life in rural areas changing?

Few activities are as pleasant and restorative as a walk around one’s farm or ranch in the evening at sunset. Even in the rain or during winter, outdoor hikes renew my perspective and replenish energy.

With the many changes occurring in modern life, is the amount of time people spend outdoors changing? Do people involved in agriculture spend less time outdoors now than in the past?

The average American spends 5 percent of available time outdoors, according to recent time studies. That includes time spent outside buildings and vehicles while involved in work, going places and outdoor leisure activities.

The National Park Service says the amount of time spent by visitors at U.S. national parks declined 15 percent over the past two decades, although the number of visitors increased. A sample of U.S. adults surveyed in 2008 reportedly spent 25 percent less time than two decades earlier in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and camping.

A University of Michigan study indicated a stratified random sample of U.S. children in 2000 spent 4 to 7 minutes outside daily. Two more recent studies found the amount of time spent by kids outdoors decreased since 2000; another study indicated 40 percent of the surveyed kids in 2009 spent more time outdoors than in 2007, while 15 percent of kids spent less time, and 45 percent remained the same.

How do people spend their time? The 2011 American Time Use Survey of employed Americans, ages 25-54 and who have children, reported the following average time allocations in a 24 hour period:

• Sleeping – 7.6 hours.

• Working and related activities – 8.8 hours.

• Leisure and sports – 2.5 hours.

• Household activities – 1.1 hours.

• Eating and drinking – 1.1 hours.

• Caring for others – 1.2 hours.

• Other – 1.7 hours

American children spent almost 55 hours per week watching television, texting and playing video games, according to a 2010 report by the Nielsen Company, the same organization that calculates television viewership ratings. These same children spend less than three hours each week reading books.

Clearly, Americans are spending less time outside than in the past. Why?

An analysis of reader comments in various articles about the subject suggests several primary reasons: uncomfortable weather, disagreeable smells, preference for indoor activities, unsafe neighborhoods and exposures to substances that can worsen medical conditions, such as asthma.

Are farm and ranch residents also spending less time outdoors? The Exposure Factors Handbook produced by the Environmental Protection Agency does not report time spent outdoors by various occupational groups.

I could find no systematically collected data about the amount of time farm and ranch people spend outdoors or any trend changes. If someone knows of objective data on the subject, please tell me.

It would seem that people engaged in agriculture today probably spend less time outdoors than in past generations because of mechanization and different required tasks. Today’s agriculturalists spend more time in the office, indoor livestock facilities, trucks and machinery cabs than in the past.

Some of the same concerns about the outdoors that bother the general public also bother rural and farm residents but not all in the same way. Rural residents are accustomed to bad weather and people who raise livestock have to go outside to tend to their animals or to get to their barns.

Urban neighborhoods where gangs prevail make people on the streets uncomfortable. Most metropolitan neighborhoods, like rural areas, are relatively safe. Urban and suburban residents say they dislike odors and air pollution such as vehicle exhaust fumes, smog and factory smells, and avoid them by staying indoors.

Both metropolitan and rural residents have concerns about health issues (e.g., allergies, asthma). Respiratory health concerns are worsening for rural residents who live near large swine and poultry production units, cattle feedlots and dairies.

A growing body of research studies undertaken at multiple locations over the past two decades indicates rural residents increasingly cite noxious odors from large confined animal facilities and pesticide exposures as deterrents to spending time outdoors. Marilyn and I choose to not spend time outside our house on days when the wind is in the “wrong direction” because we live next door to a large cattle feedlot.

Sometimes we have to drive to a place with non-foul air to enjoy the outdoors. We still need our vitamin D.

Vitamin D comes from sunlight. Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium and phosphorus, reduces blood pressure, helps fight depression, and aids in the treatment of diabetes and some cancers.

The psychological benefit of spending time in healthy outdoor environments is especially important to me. Hunting, fishing, gardening, going for walks and other outdoor activities help me look at life with a different perspective than when engrossed in work or confined inside buildings.

I can meditate freely and Marilyn says I am easier to live with!


Rosmann and his wife live on their Harlan, Iowa, farm. The author invites comments, which can be emailed on the website: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.