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The mountain chill.

The mountain chill.

Residents of Boulder, Colorado, find happiness and stress-relief through outdoor fitness.

Residents of Boulder, Colorado, find happiness and stress-relief through outdoor fitness.

By: Meghan Puhr
Photos: Shutterstock, iStock

The first time I visited Colorado, I was living in New York City, and was sent to the mountains to oversee production of a short ski film for one of my clients. When I first received the assignment, I’ll admit, I had a brief moment of city-girl panic. I had certainly never put on a pair of boots and skis, and I’m definitely not what one would call “outdoorsy”—I think the longest uninterrupted period of time I have ever spent outdoors was when I performed in summer theater productions in a local park. Nevertheless, I went.

On the long drive from the airport in Denver to Summit County, I noticed that there were plenty of people out. Not the hustle and bustle type of “out” that I experienced daily in New York City, but the type of “out” that included running, biking, hiking, walking dogs, and so on. I was confused (and slightly jealous) as to why there were that many people outdoors around two p.m. on a Monday.

Then, I finally got to the mountains. And I got it. There was something about this vast and majestic landscape that took my breath away (and I mean this literally, because I hadn’t yet adjusted to the thin air and altitude change). I felt a connection to the world I had never felt before, and suddenly I wanted to be the person outdoors at two p.m. on a Monday.

After that epiphany, and my return to New York, I did a little investigating. It came as no surprise to learn that Colorado has the nation’s lowest obesity rate (per the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation State of Obesity report), and that the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index ranked Colorado as one of the top 10 states for overall happiness based on well-being scores. Yet I began to wonder, what is it about Colorado that fosters such a relaxed, outdoorsy, fit lifestyle?

Fortunately, I recently had a chance to find out, as I found myself traveling once more to Boulder, Colorado, this time on assignment for Audi Magazine. Walking down famous Pearl Street in the historic district of downtown Boulder, I passed an eclectic variety of gear shops and high-fashion boutiques, a slew of independently owned fair-trade and organic coffee shops, and a collection of restaurants serving a local cuisine that rivals the foodie scene of any major city.

Choosing an attractive coffeehouse, I ordered a latte and waited for Colorado native Meghan Barker, a personal trainer for Fitness for Living, based in Boulder, whom I planned to interview about this state’s wellness culture. I noticed, yet again, that everyone around me had this seemingly inherent, laid-back, happy attitude, and appeared to be on their way, not to work, although it was eight a.m. on a weekday, but to something active.

Meghan soon arrived, and settled in to answering my questions. She explained that growing up in the mountains and being outdoors all the time makes fitness a part of one’s life. The copious amount of sunshine Boulder enjoys (an average of 300 days a year—more than San Diego or Miami) adds to the outdoor lifestyle. “Here, there are a variety of sports and activities that correlate with the seasons,” she said, but also credited much of the success of her career as a trainer to the natural landscape. “In Boulder, there is such a vast array of terrain” ideal for hiking, it creates “a great, natural obstacle course.”

When I noted that everyone seemed to be unusually relaxed and enjoying themselves, she laughed, and said that a huge part of fitness here is that it’s sport. “It’s this playful spirit. It’s about having fun. It’s pretty simple, but true: do what’s fun. If your mind is happy, your body is going to be happy. It’s all about everything being in sync.”

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Feeling awake and inspired after coffee and conversation, I decided to rent a bicycle and head a few miles down Boulder Creek to Koa Fitness to chat with one of its trainers.

The studio was cozy, and all the wellness practitioners were warm and inviting. I met Annette Bray, who is a former physical therapist and wellness expert who focuses on restorative fitness. In her personal endeavors, she has been working on a system she calls MOYO, which stands for “mobility yoga,” and combines yoga and biomechanics of mobility to help people create a practice that is aligned, getting all of the joints to move much more fluidly.

Bray moved to Boulder to be close to the mountains and feel more connected with nature. She finds that this connection is also vital for her clients and instills them with success. She suggested that Boulder is such a hotspot for wellness because it’s a town with an inherent sense of camaraderie. “Boulder is a community where everyone gets to know each other. As a health practitioner, one of my goals is to facilitate growth with people, and that’s not all going to come from me.”

I grabbed a bottle of locally made lemon ginger kombucha tea and headed out to the beautiful University of Colorado Boulder campus, where that same mix of energy and peace came over me, just as it had the first time I visited Colorado. But how do I get that Colorado feeling when I head back to work, stress, responsibility and, not least, traffic in my current home of Los Angeles? Apparently, the answer lies in exercise.

I walked into the campus’ Carlson Gymnasium where I met Dr. Monika Fleshner, professor of integrated physiology at the University, whose studies focus on the impact of stress on the mind and body.

In her laboratory studies, she explores stress physiology, using controlled laboratory rats—one group of rats who live with a running wheel (and choose to voluntarily run) and another group who live a sedentary lifestyle. In studying the brains of the animals who live a sedentary lifestyle, she sees prominent growth factors, one being brain drive neurotropic factor—or BDNF—and observes how it changes our ability to remember, feel happiness or cope with stressors.

Fleshner said, “We know this response in our sedentary animals brings on symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as suppression of the immune system. If you let the animals run on their wheels they were buffered against the consequences of the stressor.”

She noted that you do not have to be an athlete to get these stress protections; you just have to do some sort of physical activity every day. Her laboratory group found in their studies that the consistency of timing increases the stress barrier. She also noted that, if you start consistent exercise at a younger age, the protection buffer lasts longer. “If you were an athlete as a kid and have kept up with it as an adult, you’re bulletproof—in stress protection, that is,” she said.

Additionally, exercise provides adaptations in the serotonin system—the target of anti-depressant drugs. So, when you are exposed to an unrelenting stressor, you intensely activate the serotonin circuit, and that leads to negative consequences in mood. When the serotonin system is balanced, we feel calm and happy.

I left Dr. Fleshner’s office and spent my last few hours in Boulder biking around the campus. I don’t know if it was the exercise or the caffeine, but I do know that the Colorado feeling was in full force, and I couldn’t wait to take all of this new-found knowledge back home to test how this exercise-induced stress protection works on combatting California traffic.

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