Mental Health Benefits of Trails

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.

Through the writings of well-known outdoor champions throughout history, from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir, it has always been clear that the relationship between humans and the outdoors is important, but now studies are beginning to actually measure that impact. For example, a study released June 2019 was able to conclude that two hours a week, or 120 minutes, in the outdoors is the threshold for when there is measurable impact on mental health. Significantly, of the over 20,000 people studied in this research, the majority of those who participated took part in outdoor activities within two miles of their home, showing again why it’s important to have trails readily available to the public. The study also concluded that it didn’t make a difference whether the time spent outdoors was in a single day, or over the entirety of the week, meaning that daily commuters who use trails and pathways, if their weekly commute totals 120 minutes or more, are reaping real psychological benefits.

photo credit: jamie taylor, unsplash

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 is tracking how this movement is growing, as well as providing information and resources.


Webinars on YouTube that you might like

Three Ways to Estimate the Economic Impact of Trails and Outdoor Recreation

Jun 13, 2024

This webinar will introduce you to three ways to use research and data to estimate the economic effects of trails and outdoor recreation, plus provide an overview of how to quantify several other types of economic benefits.

Communicate, Educate, and Inform Where Visitors are Planning Their Adventures

May 30, 2024

AllTrails will bring together case studies from their Public Lands Partners to have an open discussion about how they are working to mitigate these issues through their Public Lands program and contribute to improving the overall experience of visitors and staff.

More resources in this category

Why Trails Matter: Trails are Inclusive

posted Jan 12, 2024

Trails, if designed well, can promote equitable access to the outdoors for people of all ages and abilities, bringing together people with diverse social, racial, gender, and economic identities. Inclusive trails don't just happen. It takes a robust public engagement process, inclusive approaches to trail programming, public awareness efforts and trail enhancements to meet the diverse needs of the entire community.

Why Trails Matter: Outdoor Learning

posted Sep 10, 2023

Getting outside can help you learn, and trails play a critical role in accessing natural places and learning to love them.

Why Trails Matter: Resilience to Wildfire

posted Aug 9, 2023

Trails connect suburban and rural communities to wild places, and they can play an important role in landscape resilience, as wildfire becomes more frequent in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) where homes are increasingly being built.

Why Trails Matter: In Praise of Water Trails

posted Jul 12, 2023

This article is intended to inspire and support trail managers, designers, volunteer groups, and individuals with information you can use, whether you want to get out and explore an existing water trail or begin the process of designating a new water trail in your community. 

3,693 views • posted 02/20/2020