Expert Commentary

Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures on young adults

Adolescents and young adults are spending less time outdoors and more time glued to screens—computer, TV, tablet and cell phones, according to numerous studies. A 2015 Australian study published in BMC Public Health found that 70 percent of ninth-grade boys use screens for more than two hours a day; screen time is even higher for girls, 90 percent. A number of studies have linked extended screen time with various negative health effects. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics website, “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.”

The corollary to this is the benefit of outdoor education and wilderness programs, which research has long suggested can foster mental health in teens and young adults. One of the most well-known of these programs, Outward Bound, was founded in Europe during WWII with the goal of helping merchant seamen develop skills of self-discovery, confidence and perseverance. The program spawned similar efforts, many of which are aimed at instilling these skills in young people.

A March 2016 study published in Journal of Adolescence, “Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies,” examines the possible benefits of these programs on young adults.

Study authors Michael Mutz and Johannes Müller conducted an experiment with two groups of students. The first group consisted of 12 German 8th-grade students (five girls and seven boys), who were tasked with organizing a challenging project and came up with a nine-day hike they called “Crossing the Alps.” The students started the hike in July 2015, accompanied by two teachers and two adult volunteers. The projects were prepared over the course of one school year and included planning and funding activities, developed and carried out by the students. Students were questioned twice: one week prior to the hike and four days after their return.

The second group consisted of 15 undergraduates enrolled in a sports sciences program at a German University. The group—seven females and eight males, aged 19 to 25—spent eight days in the wilderness hiking with backpacks (roughly 10 miles a day), climbing, fishing, picking berries and swimming in mountain lakes and streams. They lived in “challenging” conditions, including staying in tents without access to showers, toilets, electricity and, most of all, mobile phones or computers.

Study authors looked at three categories to assess a change in participant’s well-being: 1) self-efficacy, in which participants master a difficult task and experience an enduring change in their attitudes and minds; 2) mindfulness, which an outdoors experience would be expected to cultivate, given that participants are away from shallow amusements and, presumably, more focused on their thoughts and feelings; 3) stress relief.

Some key findings:

  • In the grade school project “Crossing the Alps” (Study 1), participants reported an increase in life satisfaction, mindfulness and a decrease in stress after a successful nine-day hike through the German, Austrian, and Italian Alps.
  • In the university project, (Study 2) participants scored higher in life satisfaction, happiness, mindfulness, and self-efficacy and lower in perceived stress
  • The students in both studies reported higher levels of momentary happiness and life satisfaction.

The study notes some limitations. The sample size is small. Also, in the first study, the lack of a control group could mean that the results were caused, at least to some degree, by self-selection of the participants or by “test-retest” effects, which can occur when the same questionnaire is answered more than once. It’s also possible that the break from routine and school for nine days caused the happiness seen in the results rather than the outdoor adventure itself. The study was also limited in that test subjects were heterogeneous: all were from relatively affluent backgrounds.

Study authors note that youth from less privileged social groups may have greater difficulties with access to structured outdoor adventures, but they also stand to benefit the most. “As these youths mostly live and grow up under adverse societal conditions, they are likely to profit the most from outdoor and adventure programs which aim at resilience and mental health,” study authors argue. Improving access to outdoor experiences—in particular for adolescents from poor backgrounds—may be a valuable component of social policies, say study authors. One way to do this, the study suggests, is to integrate outdoor programs into the school curriculum to enhance accessibility.

Further research: A 2004 study in Preventative Medicine found that neighborhood violent crime was a significant barrier to engaging in physical activity outside for Mexican-American teenage girls, a population that suffers from higher rates of obesity and Type II diabetes. A 2015 meta-data study in Journal of Adolescent and Family Health looked at 56 studies on the impact of wilderness challenge programs on recidivism and found that, while they can be helpful in reducing re-arrest rates and severity of crimes, the results appear to not have lasting benefit over time. This led researchers to conclude that, “there is little empirical support to definitively determine the effectiveness of [such] programs in reducing adolescent recidivism.”


Keywords: exercise, adolescents, outdoor programs, mindfulness, resilience, self-efficacy, well-being

About The Author