Iowa Department of Natural Resources encourages all to 'take it outside' this holiday season

Outdoor activity can improve holiday celebrations

(Gazette file photo) Winter hiking on Woodpecker Trail in Johnson County.
(Gazette file photo) Winter hiking on Woodpecker Trail in Johnson County.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Rather than reach for a second — or third — slice of pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner, take a hike.

That’s the advice of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which is encouraging families to consider spending part of their holiday enjoying Iowa’s great outdoors.

“Pick an activity based on weather conditions and your family’s interests, and consider visiting one of Iowa’s state parks, forests or recreation areas for a dose of nature to help you relax and exercise,” said Todd Coffelt, chief of the Iowa DNR’s State Parks Bureau.

Coffelt offered several suggestions from hiking and biking to fishing or, if the weather cooperates, cross-country skiing.

That may have to wait until Christmas, according to the National Weather Service, which is forecasting sunny skies through Sunday with temperatures getting as warm as the upper 50s on Friday.

Not only is getting out a way to add a little exercise to the holiday diet of food and football watching, Coffelt said visiting state parks and trails is a good way to show off Iowa’s outdoor beauty to out-of-state friends and relatives.

The DNR may be on to something more than highlighting the state’s 60-some state parks and recreation areas with its “Take it Outside” campaign, according to Iowa State University Professor of Kinesiology Panteleimon Ekkekakis. Research has shown that physical activity can have positive physical, mental and social health effects.


In recent years, researchers in the United Kingdom have found that what they call “green exercise,” may produce stronger positive effects than activity indoors or in a city setting. Their presumption is that the green environment — the outdoors — are more engaging for the senses, Ekkekakis said.

“To the extent that the walk feels tiring or monotonous ... there might be a certain discomfort,” he said. “But the fact you are outdoors and all of the senses are engaged, that dissociates the focus away from the displeasure of the walk itself toward the pleasant external environment.

“The outdoors has its own aesthetic appeal. So you have the pleasure of a walk plus the aesthetic pleasure of the outdoors environment,” Ekkekakis said.

Additionally, physical activity can have a positive effect on appetite regulation, he said.

Research has found that when the physical activity is perceived as an enjoyable activity rather than exercise, “people choose to consume fewer hedonic calories — the decadent dessert or something like that,” he explained.

“The assumption is that we use the enjoyable activity and the hedonic dessert to reward ourselves, to regulate our mood, Ekkekakis said. “If we’ve already achieved a positive mood with the physical activity, we don’t have as much of a need to over-consume food.”

Exercise, even if not particularly vigorous, Ekkekakis said, has been shown to positively regulate mood. Walking or running at a pace that feels comfortable can transiently improve mood, he said. After exercising, people tend to feel a sense of energy and invigoration.

However, the exercise of activity has to be fun, Ekkekakis said. If it becomes competitive and people feel like they are being judged or the activity has the potential for social evaluation, it can undermine any positive effect.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375;


Here are a few of Iowa’s best fall and winter outdoor activities, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources:


Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

— Take a hike — Walk for miles in Iowa’s state parks, trail systems and nature areas.

— Go hunting — Many families enjoy spending Thanksgiving in the field hunting together. Consider bringing a novice along, perhaps a neighbor or cousin who has never been hunting before.

— Enjoy a scenic drive — Load up the car and visit a state or county park. With dozens of parks to choose from, late fall and winter provide unique viewing and scenic beauty.

— Reserve a spot — Consider spending part of the holiday in one of the state park’s cabins or camping spots. State parks are open for camping year-round; however, facilities are limited to pit latrines and water is available only through frost-free hydrants. Electricity is available. To prepare in advance, make a reservation on the DNR’s reservation page, and check out the DNR state park alerts and closures page for specific winterizing plans for each state park.

— Pedal a trail — Cool-weather biking can be an invigorating way to explore Iowa’s immense trail system. Or, consider the newest trend in biking and conquer winter on a fat-tire bike.

— Cast a line — Fall and winter provide a picturesque setting to catch trout with less competition and no bugs. While Backbone State Park is Iowa’s only state park with a trout stream, there are streams near Pikes Peak State Park, Yellow River State Forest and Volga River State Recreation Area. Or take advantage of Iowa’s many urban trout stockings, where local ponds and lakes have been stocked with rainbow trout for a new opportunity that’s easily accessible for all age groups and abilities. Check out the DNR’s trout fishing page for details and stocking information.

— Grab those skinny skis — Some people are actually crossing their fingers for an early snowfall so they can get out their cross-country skis and head down the trail. Check out one of Iowa’s state parks and forests that have groomed trails for cross-country skiing.

For more information about state parks and ideas for outdoor activities, go to

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.


Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.