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Nature’s Role in Mental Illness: Prevention or Treatment?

A new study looks at the effects of outdoor recreation on mental health.

Valiphotos/Pixabay, used with permission
Outdoor activities can improve your well-being.
Source: Valiphotos/Pixabay, used with permission

If you’re looking for some form of natural healing to achieve or maintain a positive mental state, what better place to start than outside in nature? You may instinctively feel the benefits of a day at the beach or a weekend wilderness jaunt, but is there any real evidence that being outdoors is good for your mental health?

While it has yet to be determined whether activities such as walking through a desert or sitting on a bench in a city park are as restorative as, say, hiking on a wooded mountain trail or swimming in coastal waters, researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City have found that there are significant mental health benefits to be gained from participating in outdoor activities. Their systematic review of the existing literature on the mental health benefits of nature-based recreation, recently published in the Journal of Leisure Research, confirmed that spending time outdoors, and especially participating in outdoor activities, can lead to a variety of positive mental health outcomes.

More than 80% of the relevant research papers reviewed for this study reported at least one association between outdoor activities and positive mental health outcomes, while none reported a single negative mental health outcome. The most common positive benefits seen were significant reductions in stress and anxiety after time spent in nature, as well as increased positive affect, or elevated mood. The overall positive effects documented in these studies were often described using terms such as “psychological healing," "increased sense of well-being,” and “restorative.” While there were many encouraging results, however, fewer associations were found between nature-based activities and increased positive affect in studies that examined the potential benefits for those with mental health diagnoses such as major depression and PTSD.

Overall, the study authors found that nature-based recreation has a strong potential to improve mental health outcomes in areas of general well-being, resilience, restoration, and cognition, with some potential for decreasing symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression. At the same time, more studies, and more studies involving specific types of outdoor activities are necessary to provide the clinical evidence many mental health practitioners need in order to include more significant recommendations for nature-based recreation in their treatment programs.


Lackey NQ, Tyson DA, McNay D, Jyner L, Baker KH, Hodge C. Mental health benefits of nature-based recreation: a systematic review. Journal of Leisure Research. August 21, 2019.

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