Exploring the Benefits of Outdoor Experiences on Veterans
Veterans participating in extended outdoor group recreation show signs of improved mental health, suggesting a link between the activities and long-term psychological well-being.
Duvall, Jason, and Kaplan, Rachel. (2013). Exploring the Benefits of Outdoor Experiences on Veterans. San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative.
Managing physical and mental health issues associated with military service is a considerable challenge for many veterans. Helping veterans cope with these issues has become particularly important in recent years given the extraordinary demands placed on military personnel and their families. In response, a number of outdoor recreation groups such as the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative have begun to develop and sponsor group-based nature recreation programs targeting veterans. While both anecdotal and experimental data suggest that exposure to natural environments is beneficial, few studies have examined the impacts of these programs on veterans specifically. Therefore the purpose of this research was to explore the potential benefits of veterans’ participation in multi-day group-based outdoor recreation experiences.
Four organizations, offering 12 different programs each lasting 4-7 days, were included in the study. The majority did not include formal, structured psychological counseling or therapy. The emphasis was on the outdoor programs which included activities such as backpacking and canoeing. The 98 veterans comprising the study sample were recruited and surveyed one week before, one week after, and approximately one month after participating in one of these group wilderness recreation experiences. In addition to assessing demographic and background information, survey instruments were used to measure changes in psychological well-being, social functioning, life outlook, and activity engagement over time.
Results of this study indicate that participation in extended group outdoor recreation experiences may be associated with a number of significant benefits. Study participants reported significant improvements in psychological well-being, social functioning, and life outlook one week after the outdoor experience; there was also some indication that these improvements persisted over the next month. As well participants reported that they were much more likely to take part in activities that involved exploration (i.e., learning new things, testing abilities) and listening to and helping others after the outdoor recreation experience. The changes in psychological well-being, social functioning, life outlook, and activity engagement were particularly strong for veterans who had initially reported more severe ongoing health issues.
The findings suggest that extended group-based nature recreation experiences can have significant positive impacts on veterans struggling with serious health problems. This approach is especially intriguing since many veterans may find nature recreation programs more appealing than conventional clinical treatments. Engaging in activities outdoors that involve physical challenge, camaraderie, and achievement of an objective may resonate with types of experiences that make military service highly meaningful and rewarding. Although more research is needed and many questions remain, the use of extended group-based outdoor recreation programs to ease veterans’ transition back into civilian life seems to be a promising approach.