In a day and age when technology reigns and face-to-face interactions have fallen by the wayside, spending time outside has lost some of its appeal. Despite this, outdoor activity can play a major role in gaining and maintaining mental health.
By building communities with your fellow outdoorspeople, increasing your psychological resilience, and just plain enjoying nature, you can ward off stress and experience some pure, “green” bliss.
How Does Outdoor Activity Promote Mental Health?
They Build Community
Having strong social support is hugely important to our mental health. According to Mental Health America, social support actually wards of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Further, we’ve all probably had times when the support of others got us through a rough patch. Maybe your friend always provided a shoulder to cry on when you were grieving, or a family member stuck by your side when you felt anxious. No matter the situation, having pleasant social bonds is a huge part of mental health.
Outdoor activities provide us with great, bond-strengthening opportunities. If you’ve ever played a team sport or gone on a camping trip, you probably know how those experiences can connect you with your peers. It’s hard to stay isolated when you need to be communicating to know your team’s strategy, or to build a fire for dinner!
This is the basis of Bahne Bahnson’s theory about human interactions in the outdoors. Bahnson believes that outdoor activities (specifically, hiking) can promote the development of community. In Bahnson’s experience, hiking has brought him a sense of social belonging through the shared “pursuit of adventure and achievement.”
This theory is backed up by more than personal stories. Research has actually shown that outdoor spaces create new opportunities to meet people and socialize within one’s community. Further, participating in adventure-based activities, which often involve groups, naturally leads to the formation of new social bonds. You may interact with entirely new people when you sign up to go kayaking—further, you may see some old, familiar faces, who you get to interact with in a totally new way.
Outdoor activities are a great way to build community connections and thereby improve our mental health.
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They Increase Resilience
In addition to building community, outdoor activity can also be a way to build resilience.
Resilience is defined as the ability to “recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” It has a direct impact on our psychological health. Studies have shown that while some mice tend to fire neurons related to depressive behavior really quickly, more “resilient” mice fire neurons at a slower rate. Thus, the resilient mice experience lower rates of depression.
Outdoor activity can help us become more resilient. One study published in Environment and Behavior found that children who are exposed to higher levels of nature in their day-to-day life showed higher resilience to life stresses.
Another study looked at girls who participated in the nonprofit Vermont Works For Women’s “Dirt Divas” program, where campers come together to participate in adventure-based activities like rock-climbing, mountain biking, and swimming. The study found that girls who participated in the program displayed significantly higher levels of resilience upon its completion. This isn’t surprising when you consider all of the things the girls were able to accomplish!
Even a few minutes spent exercising outside can have profound mental and physical benefits; a study by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty showed increased rates of self-esteem and improved mood in those who engaged in “green exercise,” or exercise in the presence of nature. Another study suggests that outdoor, natural environments provide “the best all-round health benefits,” as outdoor activities are shown to cause “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement,” improving self-esteem and reducing feelings of stress.
Plus, on a simpler note—the outdoors are just plain pleasant to be in. Feeling the sun on your face, hearing the wind rustle through the trees, and smelling the scent of fresh grass are mood-boosting experiences. Sometimes, improving our mental health is a matter of doing things we find enjoyable. Spending time in nature can be one of them.
Organize Your Own Outdoor Adventure
Since many of us live within short distances of quality trails, hiking can be a particularly accessible and beneficial form of outdoor activity. When choosing a trail, make sure to take into account your body’s limits, especially if it’s your first time. Often, trails will be marked as easy, moderate, moderately strenuous, and strenuous. Be sure to look up the trails online before you go, and to print off a map.
Whether you’re interested in hiking, rock-climbing, or another form of adventure, be sure to check out sites like meetup.com or local outdoor adventure groups to find people who can join you on your activity! This way, you’ll take full advantage of the community-building effects of outdoor activity.
Some therapists, like Nicole Armstead-Williams, believe so fully in the power of the outdoors that they offer horticultural and/or nature-based therapy. This can be especially popular among people who live in cities.
Have any questions about outdoor activities, or want to share your own story? Shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
Reaganne Hansford is a Texas native studying Psychology at George Mason University. She has been published via National Geographic and Advanced Energy Economy. Her passions lie in asking the right questions, sharing those answers, and finding the best hiking trail in Northern Virginia.