NCEL Blog

Outdoor Engagement State of Play Part III: Outdoor Wellness

April 27, 2020

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Dylan McDowell
Acting Executive Director

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As the country manages a historic pandemic and an overburdened healthcare system, a surprising solution has entered the discussion: spend time outdoors. States and cities are wrestling with how to keep public spaces open while maintaining social distancing, and many have been forced to close parks. Yet, several governors and health professionals continue to encourage time outside for a nearby walk or hike if possible. There are likely to be many societal changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but one opportunity is realizing the benefits of time outside for maintaining positive mental and physical health. 

The link between wellbeing and nature is well established. With outdoor engagement, veterans report lower PTSD symptoms, children have longer attention spans, and exercise reduces the risk of ailments like diabetes. But far too often these activities are not accessible for those who need them most. The shutdowns associated with the coronavirus have shined a spotlight on inequitable access to green space for many communities and the need for reducing barriers so all citizens can spend time outdoors both in times of calm or crisis. Outdoor leaders, health care professionals, and state legislators across the country are working together to use outdoor engagement as the newest healthcare remedy.

Science Shows Benefits of Time Outside

The past decade has brought a surge of scientific research affirming the benefits of time outside. While many people anecdotally feel better after visiting a park, science can increasingly document these benefits through reduced stress levels, increased concentration, and other metrics that go beyond survey data. In 2018, the University of Washington established the Nature for Health initiative to expand the body of research while also connecting with community partners working with key populations like children and veterans. The Children and Nature Network has also developed an interactive database of studies demonstrating the benefits of time in nature.

Yet despite these known benefits, the trendline is headed in the wrong direction. A new report from the Outdoor Industry Association found that nearly half of Americans do not participate in outdoor recreation at all, including activities like running, biking, and hiking. Even more problematic is the fact that the vast majority of participants continue to be Caucasian. Not only are Americans missing the benefits of time outside, communities of color often lack the access and opportunities to participate in outdoor recreation. Studies have shown that affluent white areas have more parks, while higher education and income correlate with better access to green space. The result is that disadvantaged communities often lack easy transportation or walkability to nearby parks or struggle to overcome financial barriers for visiting green spaces.

State Actions to Increase Outdoor Engagement in 2020

State governments are working to address these gaps by increasing collaboration between different departments and programs. An innovative bill passed this year in New York (A8094A) requires the division of veterans’ services to conduct a review of existing programs, opportunities, and barriers on “state parks, lands, and facilities to aid in recovery from PTSD and substance abuse.” The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Didi Barrett and had strong support from the Sierra Club Military Outdoors program.  Assessments like this underscore how much remains unknown about access to these programs, even as research continues to show the benefits for groups like veterans.

Other state actions in 2020 include: 

  • Illinois bill HB4412, sponsored by Rep. Sonya Harper, would create an Outdoor Rx grant program for outdoor therapy efforts.
  • New Hampshire bill SB504, sponsored by Senator Martha Fuller Clark, would create a study committee to investigate the effectiveness of outdoor therapy for those suffering from PTSD and substance abuse disorders.
  • The Oregon Governor’s Task Force on the Outdoors released a draft framework that includes a recommendation to “make it easier for health care providers to prescribe time in nature.” 

State Efforts to Increase Time Outdoors Has Been Underway for Years

The concept of nature or outdoor “prescriptions” has been gaining traction at the state and local level for several years. South Dakota was one of the first states to issue park passes through a partnership between the State Department of Health and the Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Vermont has also implemented a program as part of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports where doctors have “prescribed” roughly 12,000 passes to patients. These passes typically provide one-time free entry to a state or local park in the hopes that it will reduce a barrier for residents to visit the park and ultimately result in more park usage overall. While these efforts are innovative and thousands of passes have been issued, some professionals have concerns about measuring the impact. Strict regulations around sharing health data limits the ability of parks to collect information on who uses their passes and whether health benefits were realized. If nothing else, these efforts have created a national dialogue around the importance of time outside and researchers will continue to explore opportunities for quantifying the benefits in the long term.

Outdoor Recreation and Beyond

Beyond recreation activities like hiking and paddling, efforts are underway to increase access to outdoor options such as sporting leagues. A federal proposal currently under consideration, called the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act, would allow for the use of tax-free accounts to pay for qualified fitness expenses such as youth sports fees, equipment, and health club memberships up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families. This program would reduce financial barriers for families to participate in local outdoor programs while providing opportunities to stay active and healthy. The concept has support from a wide array of groups and passed the U.S. House in July 2019 as part of the Health Savings Accounts Package. 

More and more research continues to demonstrate the positive linkage between time outside and overall wellbeing. Policymakers are actively working to identify solutions that ensure those benefits are accessible to all citizens, whether that is in the form of reducing transportation and access issues, addressing cost barriers, or engaging diverse populations in new ways, such as disadvantaged communities and those suffering from substance abuse. There is no single solution to make outdoor wellness universal, but the simultaneous efforts of lawmakers and experts across the country has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare system with the simple recommendation of more time outside. 

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