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Outdoor Recreation During Pandemic Supports Wellbeing in Teens

drawing of teens playing outside during the pandemic

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that spending time in nature can improve the mental health of adolescents.
  • Being in nature is one of the few ways people can safely interact with others and create a sense of normalcy.
  • If weather or other circumstances prevent you from going outside, there are many ways to imitate the effects of nature, such as using a light box or creating an indoor garden.

There’s more reason than ever to get outside as the weather improves and spring begins. In a recent study from The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers looked at the effect of outdoor recreation on adolescents’ mental health.

The study consisted of 624 teens aged 10-18 during the period of social distancing required due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of the survey revealed a much smaller decline in reported overall well-being for teens who participated in outdoor activities, as compared to those who did not.

This is far from the first study confirming the benefits nature has on your well-being, but critically demonstrates that this pattern remains when dealing with stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have seen a decline in their mental health since the pandemic began, including adolescents. 

In an October 2020 study from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence of people aged 13 to 16, researchers found that participants’ mental health had declined due to the COVID pandemic.

“Because of the limits placed on socialization with others during the pandemic, individuals are missing many of the pleasurable experiences they would normally use to relieve stress,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College.

“Therefore, with so many people having more stress, anxiety, and depression, it’s crucial to have means of relieving those emotions and helping their overall mood. Going outdoors, where it’s safer to be with others, has been one of the few remaining safe and stress-relieving activities available, making it more important than ever.” 

The Mental Health Benefits of Being In Nature

If you’ve ever spent a day out in the sun, enveloped in nature, you know the positive effect it can have on your well-being. “There are so many aspects of being outside that can relieve stress and even boost an individual’s mood. Just being in nature allows a person to feel more connected to the natural world,” says Saltz.

Gail Saltz, MD

There are so many aspects of being outside that can relieve stress and even boost an individual’s mood. Just being in nature allows a person to feel more connected to the natural world.

— Gail Saltz, MD

A 2019 study from Scientific Reports found that spending 120 minutes or more outside a week increased a person’s chance of having good health and high well-being.

When time and weather permit, going outside can be transformative for your mental state. “Not only can it be used to help us to take breaks from the challenges and stressors of our daily lives, but it can also rejuvenate our psychological resources, leading to greater resilience,” says Stephanie Harrison, the founder and CEO of the New Happy.

The Importance of Planning Time Outdoors During The Pandemic

Resilience is a normal feeling over the past year, as people have adapted their routines and continued to sacrifice without a clear end in sight. With people staying home for safety, time outdoors has gone from a natural part of the day to something that must be actively sought out. 

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center explains, “Pre-pandemic, nature exposure happened without much thinking, at least a couple of times a day for most people.”

“People may have also planned exercise time outdoors, parents had outdoor sports events for the kids, and facilities such as parks, hiking trails, and beaches were freely open to the public. The pandemic caused closures resulting in limited availability of not just indoor spaces, but also outdoor recreational resources,” says Mendez.

Before the pandemic began, teens were used to spending a lot of time outdoors through sports, gym class, and meet-ups with friends. With many of their typical means of outdoor time shut down, parents can encourage teens to find new ways to spend time in nature. While older teens may be able to drive, many require parents to bring them to places where they can have these experiences, such as hiking trails, large parks, and bike paths.

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed right now, with the idea of planning something for you or your teens, even if it’s beneficial, seeming too large an undertaking. However, in the long-term, it can make a world of difference.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

The pandemic caused closures resulting in limited availability of not just indoor spaces, but also outdoor recreational resources.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

“During this time, it has become even more important for us to consciously and deliberately engage in activities that improve our well-being,” says Harrison. “Spending time in nature is one of the most effective well-being interventions, and prioritizing it whenever possible can help to both boost your mood in the short-term and improve your resilience in the long-term.” 

How to Get These Positive Effects When You Can’t Go Outside

Whether it’s raining, too cold, or there’s not a great outdoor space near you, it’s not always possible to get outside. Fortunately, there are many ways to mimic the positive mental health impact of nature for your teen while staying inside. 

Workout Near A Window

Place your exercise equipment or streaming class near the window to take in the view of nature as you get moving, says Mendez. Even challenge your teen to a dance-off in the light of the sun to release pent-up energy and get endorphins.

Do Something Restorative

Harrison recommends taking time to do things that make you feel rejuvenated, away from stressors in your life. Ways to do this may be journaling, reading a nice book, playing a game with your family, or crafting. Is there a game your teen has always wanted to play or a craft like crocheting they want to learn? Take this as an opportunity to bond as you release life's tensions.

Look Out The Window

Sit by a window and let the light stream onto you. On a clear night, go stargazing from the comfort of your home thanks to a big window. If you have a telescope, great, but there’s plenty of stars and planets to be spotted with the naked eye. 

Use A Light Box

If you can’t get outside, Saltz recommends setting up a light box to receive similar therapeutic effects. In a 2017 study, college students using a light box for 15-30 minutes three times a week for four weeks. The group’s average depression level decreased from severe to minimal, and sleep improved.

Cultivate A Small Indoor Garden

Whether you create a terrarium, scatter plants around your home, or set up a small indoor garden, there are so many ways to bring the feeling of the outdoors inside. A 2015 study found that actively interacting with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress.

Visit Natural Attractions Virtually 

Give yourself a nature-focused experienced to look forward to. “Plan a nature activity for the future by visiting a nature site of interest such as Yosemite, Everglades National Park, or the Grand Canyon,” says Mendez.

“Practice meditation, imagery, visualization to put yourself in the setting and live the experience mentally.” This is a great opportunity to teach your teenager more about the world beyond your area and peak their interest about future adventures.

What This Means For You

Take any opportunity you can to center yourself and refresh in nature. With better weather approaching, now is the perfect time to plan some safe, outdoor activities. In the meantime, try one of the beneficial ways to imitate nature from inside.

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