The purpose of this review is to summarize existing research into the health benefits associated with non-motorized outdoor recreation activities. So far academic research has paid scant attention to this topic, but over the past decade a number of interesting and innovative projects have been undertaken in several countries by health and social sciences, resulting in actual measurements of health effects. As physical inactivity and obesity are increasing in developed nations, understanding how public health can be improved through engagement in characteristic outdoor activities, is gaining importance. In particular, this review is focused on the following research questions:
What specific outdoor recreation activities have been correlated with improved physical health?
What specific benefits to physical health have been observed in correlation with participation in non-motorized outdoor recreation activities?
Which health benefits are linked to which activities?
What benefits to health are associated with time spent in natural environments versus urban environments?
Following are typical health benefits for the three most-studied outdoor activities:
- A ~50% reduction in the risk of coronary artery disease
- Improved heart functioning
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Accumulation of lean body mass
- Reduced heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased generation of naturally-produced stem cells in the blood
- Reductions in LDL cholesterol
- Improvements in the perceived health of participants
Hiking at moderately higher altitudes (1700 m) have produced several of the above-noted benefits (improved insulin sensitivity, increased generation of stem cells) as well as lower levels of stress, and the body making better use of the nutrition it receives. Furthermore, some studies show the unique health benefit of reduced oxygen availability that is only available in a mountainous environment.
- Enhanced hormone production
- Lasting improvements to resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increased efficiency in oxygen absorption
- Improved jump height, dynamic leg strength and balance in the elderly
- Improved cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance
- Improved aerobic function
- More efficient metabolism of oxygen
- Improved hormone regulation
- Improved physical strength and body composition in children
Health benefits of being in a natural setting
Plenty of evidence suggests that simply being present in a natural setting accrues health benefits not seen in participants who spend their time in an urban environment. These benefits pertain to both mental and physical health and include:
- Heightened cognitive function
- Higher reported happiness
- Perceived rejuvenation
- Improved attention span
- Greater motivation to address life challenges
- Stabilized heart rate
- Reduced production of stress hormones
- Enhanced responsiveness to stimuli
- Heightened immune system function
- Increased production of anti-cancer proteins
- Increases in reported spiritual inspiration
Economic costs of inactivity
In a time when inactivity has become a major public health concern, it is useful to consider the economic cost of that inactivity. A recent study referenced in the review looked at direct and indirect costs for seven chronic diseases associated with physical inactivity: coronary artery disease, stroke, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. Using 2009 Canadian Health Measures data to measure inactivity, it was estimated the direct and indirect cost to Canadian governments annually to be $6.8 billion.
Given the apparent economic consequences of physical inactivity, it is important to provide the public with access to recreation that can improve health and prolong lives. Sufficient evidence exists to implicate non-motorized outdoor recreation activities as a means through which to encourage physical fitness. Several general health benefits such as improved cardiovascular fitness, reduced body fat, and improved strength can be accrued through participation in any of the possible activities. In addition to simply providing exercise, non-motorized outdoor recreation encourages participants to visit natural settings. This behaviour alone has been associated with unique physical benefits. Research into the body’s immune system response to chemicals released by trees suggests that physical activity undertaken in a natural setting has the potential to provide two unique mechanisms by which to improve health. Time spent outside of an urban setting has also been shown to have a restorative effect on the mental processes of people who engage in it, leading to an improved outlook and a heightened potential to engage in further recreation. Once the cycle of improved health begins to take hold on a person, it creates a self-perpetuating pattern of positive behavioural choices. Extrapolated into the long-term and across a broad scale, non-motorized outdoor recreation has the potential to not only improve the quality of life of all Canadians, but it may ultimately help strengthen the national economy.
You can read the full report here.