Access to outdoor recreation by older people in Scotland

Report detailing research on access to outdoor recreation for older people.

Executive Summary

The need for a better understanding of the barriers to outdoor recreation by older people

Increasing people's use of Scotland's outdoors is one of the Scottish Government's National Indicators to track progress towards its strategic objectives, particularly those referring to a healthier, safer and stronger, and greener Scotland. Increasing participation in outdoor recreation is also of relevance to the Land Use Strategy objective for communities to be better connected to the land, as well as the Physical Activity Implementation Plan and National Walking Strategy. Official statistics on outdoor recreation visits amongst the Scottish population show that older adults are less likely than young and middle-aged adults to engage in outdoor recreation on a regular basis. Whilst there is abundant evidence on the benefits derived from participation in outdoor recreation, there is less understanding of the barriers that discourage or prevent older people from participating in outdoor recreation. The purpose of this research is to improve our understanding of the factors impeding older people, including older people with disabilities, from accessing and using outdoor recreation opportunities, and explore how greater use of the outdoors amongst older people can be facilitated.

Research methodology

The research proceeded in two stages. The first stage investigated the spatial distribution of older people ( i.e. population aged 65 or over and 85 or over), including older people with long-term health problems or disabilities, using small-scale geographical units ( i.e. data zones) and the Scottish Government 8-fold urban-rural classification. The second stage of the research carried out case study work using semi-structured interviews to provide in-depth insight on the barriers experienced by older people. Twenty-seven participants took part across three case study sites varying in urbanity and access to different types of green/blue natural resources.

Remote areas have higher concentrations of older people and older people with health problems or disabilities

The results from the spatial distribution of older people and older people with long-term health problems or disabilities (stage 1) show that these groups of the population tend to be over-represented in remote/very remote small towns and rural areas. Although these figures represent considerably smaller absolute numbers of older people and older people with disabilities, when compared with large urban areas, the negative impacts on the well-being and resilience of local communities is likely to be stronger in remote/very remote small towns and rural areas. These areas are remote and hence face challenges in terms of accessibility to important medical and care facilities. The fact that isolated small towns in Scotland have significantly higher concentrations of older residents and older disabled residents should be acknowledged.

Barriers to participation in outdoor recreation are multiple and inter-related

The results from the case study work (stage 2) revealed that the barriers to participation in outdoor recreation by older people are multiple and inter-related. The interplay and interactions between barriers are important as the co-occurrence of multiple barriers is common and intensifies the effect of individual barriers to participate in outdoor recreation. The key categories of barriers identified in the interviews were: poor health and (im)mobility; lack of or reduced social connections; fragility and vulnerability; lack of motivation and time commitments; safety; and weather and season.

  • Poor health and (im)mobility. Many of the participants faced lifelong and/or temporary heath conditions, often multiple conditions that limited their mobility and consequently their ability to participate in outdoor recreation.
  • Lack of or reduced social connections. Many of the participants acknowledged preferring to go out with other people, particularly people they already know. Some participants had stopped, or reduced the frequency of, going into the outdoors because they had lost the companionship of someone to go with (especially losing a spouse and/or a friend). However, some participants also mentioned they preferred going into the outdoors alone or with people who are quiet.
  • Fragility and vulnerability. Many of the participants were worried about going into the outdoors, especially if they were alone, mostly due to a fear of falling and compromising their future independence.
  • Lack of motivation and negative attitudes. Some participants mentioned not being bothered to go out, but of these participants there were some who were encouraged to go out by other people ( e.g. spouses). Others felt that it was important to be self-motivated. Outdoor recreation may also be associated with being 'sporty', which may discourage some. Dogs may be an important motivation for some to get out more.
  • Time commitments. Many participants described themselves as having busy lives which acted as a barrier for them to get into the outdoors. The other activities which often took precedence included organised social activities and clubs, volunteering and other community work, taking care of their home and garden, and caring responsibilities. This challenges the perception that time is not a barrier to older people's participation in outdoor recreation.
  • Safety. The majority of participants mentioned not being scared of being in the outdoors. However, two types of safety fears were mentioned by participants: fear of being attacked by people and dogs, and fear of falling and no-one being able to help. Female participants seemed to face a greater barrier in terms of fear of being attacked than male participants.
  • Weather and season. Bad weather generally appeared to put participants off wanting to go into the outdoors, especially because it was felt to aggravate particular health conditions.

Moments of change in participation in outdoor recreation throughout the life course

A life history approach was used to identify key 'moments of change' in people's lives where the extent or form of engagement with the outdoors had shifted considerably, giving a useful perspective on how interventions might best be timed during individual's life course. Among the different key moments of change identified, four seemed to be more strongly associated with changes in the level of participation in outdoor recreation: children growing up; retirement; the onset of health problems; spouses or friends or dogs passing away.

Outdoor recreation vs. being active out-of-doors

The interpretation of 'outdoor recreation' is not unambiguous and can mean different things to different people. For some people the most important aspect of 'getting outdoors' is getting out of the house. The setting is not necessarily seen as being as important for wellbeing as getting out and about and seeing other people. Moreover, for several participants physical activity often took place through active travel or recreational walking in the built environment and hence was not (uniquely) derived from engaging in outdoor recreation. In rural areas the distinction between built and natural environments may be less meaningful to residents.

Some key implications for policy and practice

  • Interventions need to take into consideration the interactions between barriers and should aim to address multiple barriers simultaneously. Doing so may require co-ordinated action between different bodies from the public sector ( e.g. NHS Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage ( SNH), Forestry Commission Scotland, local authorities), the third sector ( e.g. local community and voluntary groups), and the private sector ( e.g. social enterprises);
  • "Green prescribing" by doctors and medical professionals may be a valuable way to promote outdoor recreation amongst older people and should be integrated with other initiatives ( e.g. walking groups) which offer opportunities for overcoming social and motivational barriers;
  • More generally, interventions should aim to address social barriers and may benefit from positioning themselves more in terms of social benefits than physical activity;
  • Interventions should target not only the specific individual but also his/her immediate network of relatives and friends;
  • Interventions may be more effective at increasing participation in outdoor recreation by considering how they might target people at points in their life when engagement with the outdoors is subject to change;
  • Walking groups may offer a more resilient basis for outdoor recreation since members can come and go whilst the continuity of the group is retained. Local authorities should work in conjunction with local groups to communicate and integrate the range of activities and groups operating at different levels of abilities and preferences.


Email: Graeme Beale,

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