Americans Aren’t Going Outside. What Does it Mean for Mental Health?

September 9, 2021

`Nearly half of Americans didn’t take part in any outdoor recreation in 2018. That’s the headline from a new report released in January by the Outdoor Foundation. And they’re warning us that things are getting worse: Americans took 1 billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than in 2008.

The authors of the study are worried, but why is it such a big deal?

Outdoor recreation is great for our physical health, helps us connect with others, and inspires us to protect the environment. But what about our mental health? Are the tens of millions of Americans who don’t get outside at greater risk of poor mental health? And could getting outside more help us tackle the mental health crisis across the US?

What’s going on with American mental health?

There’s no doubt that our modern lifestyle affects our mental health. So many of us feel stretched, burned out, and anxious about the future. Far too many people still live in poverty, which has been linked clearly to poor mental health. And substance abuse, stress, and loneliness are serious issues affecting the mental health of millions of Americans across the country.

Many scientists also believe our mental health is suffering because we’ve lost our connection to nature. We’re more reliant on technology and less connected to the outside world than ever before. The negative impact is most noticeable on children, who benefit hugely from time spent playing outside. And unfortunately, children took part in 15% fewer outdoor activities in 2018 than they did in 2008.

The great outdoors: a great mental health cure?

Multi-ethnic hipster friends on summer holidays having fun roasting marshmallows by the sea at dusk

More than 46 million American adults experienced a mental health condition in 2018, with depression and anxiety the most common illnesses. Even more concerning: mental illness among children and teenagers is rising quickly. While treatment – mostly talk therapy and medication – is available, not everyone can access it.

But there’s evidence that getting outside could help prevent or even treat common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Remember the last time you went for a walk in the woods? You probably came home feeling better than when you left. Outdoor exercise has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood. Study after study has shown that regular exercise reduces the risk of depression by up to 41%. And for many people, exercise can relieve symptoms of depression and could be an effective addition to traditional treatments.

How does getting outside boost our mental health?

There are lots of things going on in our brain that make outdoor exercise such a win for our mental health. Exercise (whether outside or in the gym) reduces inflammation and promotes neural growth. Both of these effects are linked with a reduced risk of depression and negative thinking. Exercise also releases powerful hormones like endorphins and serotonin, which make us feel good and improve our mood.

So why is getting outside better than hopping on the treadmill? Well, there’s plenty of evidence that merely being in nature is good for us too. Research has found that people who are connected with nature tend to be happier and experience less stress and anxiety than others. Being connected to the natural world can make us more resilient and confident. In fact, even seeing images of nature can make us feel calmer and less anxious.

Combining the powerful anti-depressant effects of exercise with the stress-reducing impact of spending time in nature is a huge win-win for our mental health. Not to mention, most outdoor recreation encourages connection with other people – family, friends, strangers you meet on the trail. And we know that connection to others is vital for good mental health.

Five ways to get outside more for your mental health

Group of children playing hide and seek

With so much evidence that outdoor recreation can prevent and even treat mental health conditions, it’s worrying to know that only half the population is getting outside to exercise each year. But the outdoors isn’t just for thrill-seekers like free-solo climber Alex Honnold, or Olympic champion snowboarders like Shaun White.

In fact, the most popular outdoor activities in the US are all affordable, accessible choices: running, fishing, biking, hiking, and camping. And you don’t need to be exploring the isolated wilderness of Alaska to benefit from getting outside. Getting active in your local or state park, beach, or in the woods is just as good for you.

If reading this article has inspired you to get outside and give your mental health a boost, but you aren’t sure where to start, try one of these five simple ways to reconnect with nature:

1. Organize a group hike

Hiking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the USA. And we love it because it’s basically free. All you need is some sneakers, a raincoat (just in case), and some good friends to share the adventure. You’ll be surprised how many great hiking trails there, even close to big cities. Websites like AllTrails let you search for local trails, and also give you directions and useful tips from other hikers.

2. Hop on your bike

Cycling is another top-five favorite activity for Americans. If you’ve got an old bike gathering dust in the garage, clean it up and go explore your local park. Or find out if there’s a cycle hire scheme in your hometown – they’re becoming more and more popular across the world. You don’t have to go far to enjoy the mood-boosting benefits of biking.

3. Join a local outdoors club

Getting into outdoor sports like; hiking, trail running, climbing, and mountain biking can be intimidating at first. But there are amazing communities of like-minded people in every city who can’t wait to introduce new people to their favorite sport. Find out if there’s a local Facebook group for your sport where you can meet new adventure buddies, learn more about the sport, and get insider tips for making great weekend outdoor plans.

4. Play in the park

Getting outside with kids can seem like hard work. But the outdoor play is so good for children, it’s worth making an effort. Start small, with a trip to the local park, woods, or beach. Let the kids get messy and discover the outdoors for themselves. Remember to take plenty of snacks, water, and sunscreen, so your trip doesn’t get cut short by grumpy little ones! There might be some bumps and bruises, but you’ll see their confidence grow as they connect with the natural world.

5. Take a car-camping trip

Americans love to go camping – and who can blame us, living in a country with some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. But not every camping trip needs to be an epic wilderness adventure. For your first camping trip, load up the car with all the home comforts you need and head out car-camping. Pick a national, state, or local park where you can camp close to your car, make a campfire, and savor the chance to switch off and catch up with friends in the great outdoors.

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