Benefits of Wilderness Therapy: How Green Exercise Can Improve Mental Health

In our latest Research Reflections blog, Research Ambassador Rae Spencer draws on her own experiences as a researcher to document how green exercise can improve mental health.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in using wilderness therapy to improve mental health. Wilderness therapy combines outdoor activities with traditional therapy techniques to give participants a unique and challenging experience that promotes personal growth and development. One aspect of wilderness therapy that has garnered attention is green exercise. In this Research Reflections blog, Research Ambassador Rae Spencer explores its benefits in the context of wilderness therapy.

Green exercise is physical activity performed in a natural environment, such as hiking, kayaking, or rock climbing. The idea behind green exercise is that it provides benefits beyond just physical fitness. Spending time in nature has been shown to have various benefits. These include reduced stress levels, improved mood, and enhanced cognitive function (Roberts, Barton and Wood, 2016). In the context of wilderness therapy, green exercise can provide even more significant benefits.

In 2017, for my final year dissertation, I conducted a study in partnership with the Wilderness Foundation UK to explore the experience of green exercise while on the TurnAround wilderness therapy program for young adults with depression. The TurnAround program was designed to help vulnerable or at-risk young people aged 15-21. The program lasts for six months and includes:

  • Two weeklong wilderness expeditions.
  • Weekly meetings with a personal mentor.
  • Monthly day workshops focusing on behaviour change and social skills.

The study findings revealed that the environment and physical activity undertaken on the TurnAround program were enough to restore participants’ mental fatigue. Furthermore, the study discovered that participation in green exercise while on the TurnAround program increased participants’ overall well-being, with participants experiencing increased positive emotions, engagement, relationship building, meaning, and sense of accomplishment.

One of the key benefits of green exercise in the context of wilderness therapy is the opportunity to disconnect from technology and modern-day stresses. Spending time in nature allows participants to unplug and focus on the present moment. Individuals with depression may find it particularly beneficial to spend time in nature as it can help reduce intrusive thoughts and negative self-talk. Spending time in nature can have a calming and relaxing effect, leading to a decrease in anxiety and an increase in positive emotions (Barton et al, 2016).

In addition to the psychological benefits of green exercise, there are also physical benefits. Many outdoor activities require physical fitness, which can help improve overall health and well-being. For individuals with depression, physical activity can be particularly beneficial, as it has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety (Wood, Wicks and Barton, 2023).

Another benefit of green exercise in wilderness therapy is the opportunity for social connection. The TurnAround program involved group activities, allowing participants to connect with others going through similar experiences. This can be particularly important for individuals with depression, who may feel isolated or disconnected from others (Sempik and Bragg, 2016). Participating in group activities helped the young people build relationships, gain support, and develop a sense of belonging.

The benefits of wilderness therapy and green exercise are significant. The natural environment provides a unique and challenging experience that can promote personal growth and development. For individuals with depression, the benefits of green exercise in the context of wilderness therapy are particularly noteworthy. Green exercise can improve mental health and overall well-being by providing opportunities for physical activity, social connection, and a sense of calm and relaxation. It’s important to keep researching the benefits of wilderness therapy and green exercise for improving mental health.

Rae Spencer, Research Ambassador

Rae Spencer is a final year undergraduate adult nursing student at the University of Essex. She also holds an undergraduate degree in Sport and Exercise Science (2018) and a postgraduate certificate in Neuroscience (2020).  She’s passionate about research with a keen interest in health and wellbeing. Rae joined Healthwatch Essex in 2023 as a Research Ambassador. You can find Rae on X here: