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Walking off depression and beating stress outdoors? Nature group walks linked to improved mental health

Large scale study says group nature walks linked with significantly lower depression and perceived stress, enhanced mental well-being

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — They are common suggestions to remedy stress: You just need a breath of fresh air. Walk it off. Get out and see people. 

Turns out all those things combined may in fact make you feel better – a lot better – a new large scale study suggests.

Group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being, according to the study conducted by the University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute, and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom. The findings appear in a special issue of Ecopsychology devoted to ‘Ecopsychology and Public Health’.

People who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment especially saw a mood boost after outdoor group walks.

“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,” says senior author Sara Warber, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School and member of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Walking for Health

Photo Credit: Walking for Health

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“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. 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.”

Researchers evaluated 1,991 participants from the Walking for Health program in England, which helps facilitate nearly 3,000 weekly walks and draws more than 70,000 regular walkers a year.

“Given the increase in mental ill health and physical inactivity in the developed world, we are constantly exploring new, accessible ways to help people improve their long term quality of life and well-being,” Warber says.
“Group walks in local natural environments may make a potentially important contribution to public health and be beneficial in helping people cope with stress and experience improved emotions.”

The lead author of the study was Melissa R. Marselle, Ph.D., M.Sc., of the Department of Psychology at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, UK and the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.

Warber’s long-time collaborator, Katherine Irvine, Ph.D., a graduate of the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment and senior researcher of the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Research Group at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, UK, also contributed significantly to this study.

Disclosures: None

Funding: Marselle was supported by a De Montfort University Ph.D. Studentship. Irvine was supported by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS).  Warber was supported by a Fulbright Scholarship from the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

Reference: “Examining group walks in nature and multiple aspects of well-being: A large scale study,” Ecopsychology, DOI: 10.1089/eco.2014.0027.

NOTICE: Except where otherwise noted, all articles are published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. You are free to copy, distribute, adapt, transmit, or make commercial use of this work as long as you attribute the University of Michigan Health System as the original creator and include a link to this article.

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