Beyond the physical health benefits of trails, the mental health benefits of trail access is also invaluable.
Almost all outdoor recreation activities involve trails in some capacity, be it kayaking, snowmobiling, horseback riding, or hiking, trails are what allow us to play in the outdoors. As we learn more about the effect spending time in the outdoors has on mental health, it becomes clear that access to these outdoor activities has a real and measurable effect on psychological well-being.
Although in the previous study the researchers found that two hours was the threshold where long term significant impacts were measured, even spending 20 minutes outside will have short term effects on the brain to reduce stress. Scientists at the University of Michigan tested this, by taking saliva samples from participants before they spent 20 minutes in the outdoors, and after. After that 20 minutes outdoors participants had an average drop of 21.3% in the stress hormone cortisol. More anecdotally, countless studies show people self-reporting reduced stress, clearer thought patterns, more optimism, and an overall heightened sense of wellbeing after being outdoors. This data is also not reflective of any specific outdoor activity, but rather is seen across all outdoor activities, which again points to the need for trail access for all trail user groups. The more options there are for outdoor recreation, the more people will get outside and reap these benefits.
In Japan the practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has been popular since the 1980’s, but we are now seeing more medical practitioners in the United States and other western countries prescribe time in the outdoors as a way to combat depression, anxiety, and other health related issues. National Geographic highlighted this practice, noting that in South Dakota there is now a program for park prescriptions, where with a doctor’s pass you can get into any South Dakota State Park or recreation area for free. There are now dozens of similar programs across the country. The website ParkRX.org is tracking how this movement is growing, as well as providing information and resources.