People who go on nature walks with others are less likely to report feeling depressed and stressed and tend to score higher on assessments of mental and emotional well-being than their non-nature-walking peers, according to a large study published earlier this month.
The study’s findings add to the growing body of research that suggests exposure to nature improves psychological well-being, especially when it is combined with walking.
“We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside, but there haven’t been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being,” said Dr. Sara Warber, one of the study’s co-authors and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan, in a released statement.
For the study, Warber and researchers at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, and the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, assessed the mental and psychological well-being of almost 2,000 participants in the United Kingdom’s Walking for Health program, a 12-year-old public health effort that organizes about 3,000 outdoor walks each week and draws more than 70,000 regular walkers each year.
The participants answered questions about their physical and mental health, including ones designed to measure depression, perceived stress, mental well-being, social well-being, and negative and positive affect, or feelings (how often they felt upset or guilty, for example, or interested and excited).
Their answers were compared to those of people who had not participated in the Walking for Health program, and then those findings were controlled for such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, education, disability, past physical activity and past stressful life events (such as the death of a family member, a divorce or the loss of a job).
An analysis of all the data revealed the following key results:
- Nature-based group walking was associated with significantly less depression. In fact, after controlling for recent physical activity or a major stressful life event, nature-based group walking was found to be the strongest predictor of whether people in the study exhibited signs of depression on the questionnaires. “With depression projected to be the number one cause of global burden of disease by 2030, the results suggest that nature-based group walks could be used to help manage depressive feelings in individuals and in the general population,” write Warber and her co-authors.
- Nature-based group walking was the second-strongest predictor — after stressful life events — of perceived stress and negative affect. But group walking, unlike stressful events, significantly lowered rather than raised the participants’ reports of stress and negative feelings.
- Nature-based group walking was also the second-strongest predictor — behind physical activity in general — of mental well-being and positive affect. Both exerted a positive influence on these factors.
- The one area in which nature-based group walking had little impact was on social support. That finding was surprising, say Warber and her co-authors, because other research has shown that the social aspect of joining a walking group is often what attracts people to the activity in the first place — and what keeps them repeating the activity week after week.
This study is, of course, an observational one, which means it cannot prove cause and effect. Although the researchers controlled for many variables, other factors might explain the observed differences in the psychological health among the nature group and non-group walkers. In addition, the participants in this study were mostly white, older, affluent women, and, thus, the findings might not be applicable to other demographic groups.
Still, as background information in the study makes clear, other studies have found that walking — particularly walking outdoors in nature (as opposed to, say, indoors in a mall or even along city sidewalks) — is good for emotional and psychological health.
“Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise, and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster,” said Warber. “Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.”