Professor Emeritus Steven Gaskill prefers to meet outside, gliding into Sacajawea Park on a bike with yellow fenders and a milk crate, sitting on the opposite end of the bench to forge a safe distance during an interview.

He has pursued a variety of projects in his time, describing his guiding philosophy as “if a door opens, walk through it.” Right now, he’s leading efforts to fix the M trail. But he passed through a few other doors first.

“I became a U.S. Olympic coach by being in the right place at the right time and having been a skier who wasn’t very successful, but who made all the mistakes, so I knew how to correct them,” Gaskill said. “I coached at the Olympic level for about 10 years and I ran my own junior program, but decided I needed to settle down a little bit. So I finished my PhD and when this job opened up at the university it was kind of a dream job.”

Still, while he physically settled down, he became one of the most prolific researchers at the University of Montana, producing upwards of 50 articles and presentations. As a professor of Health and Human Performance, his research focused on the cognitive benefits of physical activity for school age children — how integrating exercise into curriculum can improve attention, memory and grades. This can translate to jumping around in a circle to learn its degrees or dancing as a group to visualize the phases of the moon.

But his research also exposed the uncomfortable reality that a child’s access to physical activity outside of school is intimately tied to their socioeconomic status, making low-income communities those most susceptible to high obesity rates and chronic health conditions.

“In Missoula, over half of the kids are on free and reduced lunch program. They don’t have access when both parents are working in moderate to low wage jobs. They get home late, and kids can’t go out and play on their own. So that’s when it first hit me that I need to improve access. So I worked with schools and the YMCA in the Active 6 program trying to get sixth graders more active and hoping that’d carry on into middle school.”

Kurtis Hanson stands near the newly installed stairs leading to the M Trail. The concrete replaces the old wooden stairs. (Courtesy photo)
Kurtis Hanson stands near the newly installed stairs leading to the M Trail. The concrete replaces the old wooden stairs. (Courtesy photo)

This desire to equalize access to physical exercise drove Professor Gaskill to his current project: revamping the M trail. This is no fleeting passion — he has spent the past 10 years creating memorial benches for influential UM faculty members, now totaling seven.

In early 2020, he was asked to take on the trail in its entirety, analyzing its fissures and determining sustainable ways to fix them. So far, his team has replaced the steps at the bottom and made plans to install water bars, remove metal fencing, and implement split-rail fencing at each switchback.

These plans have stagnated as their execution demands the congregation of large groups, but former Olympic Coach Steven Gaskill has not shied away from moving forward on this labor and time-intensive project.

Instead, “we broke it down into smaller group projects, like taking out fencing for one to four people. We had to really rethink how we were going to approach it and prioritize it. The pandemic changed that, but the other thing we’ve seen is that more people are outside and using the trails.”

The pandemic brought an advent of exercise — as social commitments fell by the wayside, more stir-crazy and sedentary people explored ways to get out and get active, via YouTube videos, a spontaneous passion for running, or navigating the great outdoors.

So while New Yorkers huddle in their apartments, Missoulians have an unfair advantage, able to capitalize on their spacious surroundings. Professor Gaskill thinks this will not only promote mental and physical wellbeing, but also boost our community’s immunity.

“Part of the reason COVID is so bad in the U.S. is because we have a high obesity rate. Nearly half of adults now are overweight or obese, which leads to higher blood pressure and diabetes, the same risk factors of COVID-19,” Gaskill said.

He’s not hyperbolizing — over 70% of United States citizens today are overweight or obese, and those individuals are 28 times more likely to develop diabetes.

As COVID-19 has drawn back the curtain on disparities in health care treatment based on race and income — people of color are four times more likely to contract the virus due to their labor on the front lines of the crisis, and low-income folks have been forced to delay medical treatment until absolutely necessary, resulting in higher fatality rates.

But Professor Gaskill believes society can get closer to the root of its health problem by putting more funds toward parks and recreation, and education. This way, kids of diverse backgrounds have access to Missoula’s public lands.

“It’s like how people say defund the police department, it doesn’t just mean take away money from police departments, it means move money from police to social services so we could have teams that help children exercise and integrate it into their curriculum,” Gaskill said.

If such opportunities were provided, as well as supplementing the hidden costs of transportation and necessary equipment, Gaskill believes “the longtime social costs of health care and support later on are much lower.”

According to the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs, allocating more money into early childhood programs can yield a $4 to $9 return for every $1 invested as they reduce dependence on social programs later in life.

The M Trail is among Missoula's more popular trails. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
The M Trail is among Missoula's more popular trails. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Yet for all this, Professor Gaskill claims he is pessimistic about the future of Americans’ physical health. After all, the trends have shown increasing obesity in children and adults as both classrooms and careers have slowed to a standstill, or rather, a sit-still.

But he believes in doing what you can with what you have. “And if you live in a community, you need to give to the community,” Gaskill said.

He acknowledged that “like most white Americans, I’ve been oblivious to the differences between socioeconomic groups.” But while this national awakening is only the preliminary step toward progress, Professor Gaskill believes in focusing on what he can positively influence, even when it seems like the sky is falling.

“And the M trail is a worthwhile project because it’s a symbol of Missoula,” he said. “Right now it’s run down, it needs help. We know symbols are important from the Black Lives Matter movement. When people visit Missoula and hike the M, it should look taken care of.”

In other words, symbols can imbue a sense of hope. So while health statistics and the general state of the world right now might lead some to pessimism as a forgone conclusion, the actions of thoughtful, committed citizens like Professor Gaskill can cause a chain reaction.

Those hikers who want to give back can contribute to the donation box at the bottom of the M trail by the new steps. According to Gaskill, “if everyone donated 50 cents to the trail, we could maintain it in perpetuity.”

Donations can also be made to Those who want to help Professor Gaskill hands-on can email; the small group projects will begin in mid-July.

Audrey Pettit is an intern with the Missoula Current