A Systematic Review of the Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Wildand Recreation.

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Journal of Park and Recreation Administration


Sagamore Publishing

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Non-motorized outdoor recreation contributes significantly to the U.S. economy by providing over six million jobs and $88 billion in federal and state tax revenues (Southwick Associates, 2013). Participation in non-motorized wildland recreation, defined in this paper as non-motorized outdoor recreation that is dependent on the natural resources of an undeveloped natural setting, has increased in recent years with half of Americans participating annually (Outdoor Foundation, 2017). There has been a growing field of evidence demonstrating the relationship between natural settings and human health (e.g., Frumkin, 2001). This research suggests that the qualities and characteristics of setting may enhance or inhibit health outcomes (e.g., Kellert, Heerwagen, & Mador, 2011). Wildland settings (e.g., national parks, national forests, refuges) have unique characteristics that are thought to contribute to human health through the activities that take place in these settings. Similar to the components outlined by Hammitt, Cole, and Monz (2015), our study focuses on wildland recreation and explores the potential relationships between recreation on wildlands and physical and mental health. To date, there has not been a comprehensive and systematic review of the literature exploring how recreation that takes place in wildland settings influences physical and mental health and if these health outcomes differ from recreation in other more urban and exurban outdoor settings (e.g., urban green space). This is particularly important because society faces a range of chronic and acute health challenges and many argue that outdoor recreation in wildland settings offers an important antidote to many of these health challenges. Yet, without investigating and summarizing the results of peer-reviewed investigations, we have little understanding of the potential for wildland recreation improving mental and physical health. To address this gap, we conducted a systematic literature review of peer-reviewed empirical studies of wildland recreation activities and assessed physical and mental health outcomes. We investigated whether wildland recreation positively contributed to a range of physical and mental health outcomes, the type of recreation activity, where the activity occurred, and if outcomes were positive, why the health benefit occurred. Our analysis explores aspects and focus areas wildland recreation health research (i.e., most studies focused on hiking; how recreational activities impact mental and physical health; and aspects of the physical setting, the recreational activity, and the social atmosphere that influence health). We discuss these trends and outline recommendations for future research to expand our understanding of the linkages between wildland recreation and human health. Our research has implications for managers and researchers. For researchers studying the connections between wildland recreation and human health, this review facilitated identification of trends and gaps which can inform and strengthen this area of research. For managers of wildlands and individuals working to address physical and mental health, our study offers empirical evidence of the connections between wildlands and human health, and can inform how best to manage such lands to promote health benefits.

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