Policy Update

First in Science: Outdoor Recreation Improves Mental Health



NCEL Point of Contact

Dylan McDowell
Executive Director

Research finds that people who spend more time outdoors have a lower risk of depression

As urbanization increases across the country, it is also associated with increased levels of mental illness. Some studies show that people who live in urban areas have 20% higher risk of anxiety and 40% higher risk of mood disorders. But researchers believe outdoor recreation can reduce these risks.

The Study: Researchers conducted an experiment with 38 healthy participants who took 90-minute walks in an urban and nature setting. Researchers analyzed the neural functions of the brain during both walks as well as had participants conduct a self report of their thoughts and emotions.

Results: The study demonstrated that participants had more positive neural functions and thoughts following a 90-minute walk in nature. Through these observations, the researchers determined that spending more time in nature improves mental health by relieving anxiety and the occurrence of negative repeated thoughts, and can result in a lower risk of depression. These findings have also been supported by similar studies.

States across the country are looking at ways to encourage people to get outdoors. Many, like New YorkColorado, and Arizona, are specifically working to create grant programs for outdoor-based therapy services to veterans and those in recovery from substance abuse or other trauma.


  • The full article is available online through PNAS.
  • An article about the study can be found through Stanford News.
  • Visit NCEL’s website for a fact sheet about outdoor recreation and for policy options.