Outdoor recreation - understanding the drivers of participation: research

This report presents findings from research into participation in outdoor recreation among adults in Scotland. The research explores drivers behind the observed increases in participation, as well variations across population groups, with a view to widening participation.

Executive summary

Since 2012, there has been a significant increase in the number of adults participating in outdoor recreation on both an annual basis and a weekly basis. However, increased participation has not been seen across all groups, such as those with a long-term illness or disability, or among minority ethnic groups.

The aim of the research was to understand current attitudes to and behaviours towards outdoor recreation, and to provide recommendations on how the increased participation observed since 2012 can be sustained over the long-term, with any barriers to participation among lower-participation and equalities groups overcome.

The research was qualitative in nature and was conducted in two phases – 50 in-depth telephone interviews and an app diary (completed by 19 of the 50 participants). It employed a behavioural science approach to address the research aims systematically, by understanding the dimensions of behaviour that influence both why participation in outdoor recreation increases and whether it is sustained.

Key findings

Perceptions of and participation in outdoor activities

Overall, participants' views on the outdoors, including local spaces and outdoor activities in Scotland were very positive. The activities they took part in fell into three broad categories: walking; outings; and other sports or fitness activities.

Factors motivating participation in outdoor activities

Participants identified a range of motivating factors that acted as drivers of participation in outdoor activities and that encouraged them to start or maintain their participation. These were:

  • Improving and maintaining physical health and fitness - to help improve or maintain overall fitness and stamina, lose weight or be more physically active
  • Mental health benefits, which were among the most important drivers of ongoing participation. Outdoor activities were credited with helping participants maintain and improve their mental health and wellbeing, allowing them to relax, unwind, and ease any worry, stress or anxiety
  • Social and family benefits - one of the main reasons participants had started an outdoor activity was to spend time with family or friends, and these activities often played an important role in their social lives and routines
  • Being closer to nature - enjoying Scotland's scenery and wildlife provided further inspiration for starting and maintaining outdoor activities
  • Learning something or discovering new places - sightseeing and/or getting to know a new area was another reason given for starting or continuing an outdoor activity and was often motivated by cultural interests such as seeing new places in Scotland or finding out about its history.

Enablers and barriers to participation in outdoor activities

Alongside the motivations above were factors that made it easier or more difficult for someone to participate in an activity. These included both individual, internal, factors and external factors. Internal factors that enabled or restricted participation in outdoor activities were: identity and values; routines; personal goals; knowledge and experience; and physical ability. External factors were: easy access to good quality local green spaces; physical infrastructure; childhood experiences; social and cultural norms; social connections and family; information and support from other channels; affordability, access to transport and equipment; available leisure time; weather and daylight; and lockdown restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic had acted both as a barrier to participation in outdoor activities and as an enabler.

Since the research was not a longitudinal study, it cannot tell us with any certainty how participants' behaviours and attitudes towards outdoor activities have changed over time. However, it does highlight some key factors that may have played a role in increasing participation in outdoor recreation in Scotland:

  • patterns laid down in childhood
  • trying outdoor activities as a result of friends or family
  • greater leisure time being available at particular lifestages
  • an increase in dog ownership
  • advice from health professionals
  • technological advances (such as apps and smartwatches)
  • the establishment of more activity-based social groups.

Guiding principles

A set of guiding principles that could help to sustain participation in outdoor activities, and in some cases to widen participation among lower participation groups, were developed on the basis of the research findings using the MAPPS behaviour change framework. These guiding principles can be used to inform the design of interventions to help increase participation in outdoor activities in future.

The guiding principles are grouped as follows:

Motivational ('do I want to do it?')

  • Health professionals play an important role in prescribing outdoor exercise – particularly for minority ethnic groups where the benefits are not as well known.
  • There may be scope to further advocate the mental health benefits of outdoor activities – these play a key role in sustaining participation but are not currently a main driver to starting activities.
  • Strengthening the sense of identity people feel with an activity can help sustain and deepen participation.
  • In designing interventions to encourage families to take part in outdoor recreation, there is scope to build on the view that doing outdoor activities with children is part of being a 'good parent'.
  • Challenges and goals (e.g. walking 10,000 steps a day, running a 10k) act as useful ways of sustaining motivation. The use of technology, such as apps and fitness watches, can support these goals.

Ability ('am I able to do it?')

  • There is a role for greater information provision and communication of the benefits of outdoor activities, particularly among minority ethnic groups.
  • There is scope to emphasise the range of activities that can be enjoyed, including by people who are less physically mobile.
  • Childhood experiences can strongly influence sustained participation in outdoor activities in adulthood.
  • Encouraging the development of new or adapted routines can help to build motivation for participation in outdoor recreation.

Physical ('does the context encourage the behaviour?')

  • Availability of good quality, easy to access local spaces helps to facilitate regular participation, while a lack of these can be a barrier in more deprived areas.
  • The physical infrastructure and maintenance of outdoor spaces affects their accessibility, appeal and usage.
  • Improvements to cycling infrastructure, and ways to help people build their cycling confidence and manage challenging cycling situations, may address some of the barriers to this activity.
  • Available resources (financial, transport, equipment) affect both the range of activities people can do and the extent to which they can engage with them.
  • The role played by life stage and personal and family circumstances – such as parenthood or retirement - should be borne in mind when considering opportunities to encourage participation.

Social ('what do other people do and value?')

  • Activity groups and organised trips can help both to initiate and to sustain participation.
  • More informal social meetings for outdoor activities can also help to initiate and sustain participation.
  • Cultural norms strongly influence knowledge, attitudes and behaviours, acting as both an enabler and a barrier.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

Back to top