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first_descent_kayakPro kayaker Brad Ludden didn’t know what to do when his aunt died of cancer when he was a teen—but he felt compelled to do something. So he started volunteering at pediatric oncology units, teaching kids what he knew: kayaking.

“I had no other skill to offer, but I had all these kayaks,” he explains. “That opened my eyes to how powerful the sport of kayaking could be for someone else.”

Cue the lightbulb. Two years later, he launched First Descents, an organization that gives young adults impacted by cancer the chance to embark on outdoor adventures like kayaking, climbing, and hiking.

“The majority [of young adult cancer fighters] feel isolation and alienation from peers. There’s definitely a lot of body image issues, and we see a lot of depression and anxiety,” Ludden says.

Out in nature, they often triumph in ways they never could have imagined. Here, Ludden explains how physically challenging experiences (get ready to do that thing that terrifies you!) can do the same for you. —Amy Marturana

first-descentsHow physically challenging experiences make you stronger:

1. They restore your connection with your body. “‘I lost trust in my body’ is a common quote I hear,” Ludden shares. Accomplishing something physical (especially if you never thought you’d be able to do it) can help restore a healthy body image. “If you’re not feeling good about your body, go push it and remind yourself how capable it is. Reconnect with it.”

2. Endorphins, baby. We’ve all heard about those feel-good endorphins that come from exercise—and it doesn’t take much to get them going. Ludden has observed that people who exercise, even just lightly, during treatment, can have better health outcomes.

3. Nature adds extra healing. Nature’s inherent ability to calm and inspire us also has a real impact on mental health. Numerous studies have shown that spending time in nature boosts happiness and can immediately improve your mood. “Just getting outside of daily life and putting yourself into a beautiful natural setting, there’s no substitute,” Ludden says.

4. Overcoming the uncertain is empowering. Facing a challenge “can teach us that outcomes can be positive and we can feel good and we can succeed,” Ludden explains. No matter what you’re dealing with, completing a tough physical challenge can train you to expect success and stop focusing on the possible negative outcomes.

5. It builds a sense of community. Embarking on a big adventure with a group can dissolve feelings of isolation and alienation. “That bond formed during a shared adventure is really immeasurable,” says Ludden.

For more information, visit firstdescents.org

(Photos: Instagram/first_descents)