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.

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

Since 2006, increasing the number of adults who visit the outdoors for recreation at least once a week has been a Scottish Government National Indicator, with progress towards this being measured via the National Performance Framework.[1] 'Outdoor recreation' is defined by NatureScot as "any non-motorised activity carried out for leisure purposes" and includes a wide range of activities such as walking, picnicking, family outings, running, cycling, and water sports.

Visiting the outdoors and engaging with nature for leisure and recreation purposes has been shown to deliver a range of health, environmental and social benefits. These include providing opportunities for participants who visit the outdoors to relax and unwind, improve their physical health, feel closer to nature or enjoy the company of others.[2]

Since 2012, there has been a significant increase in both the number of adults participating in outdoor recreation on an annual basis (from 80% in 2012 to 88% in 2019) and a weekly basis (42% in 2012 to 56% in 2019).[3] Over this period, weekly participation has increased amongst both men and women, across all age groups, and among some groups which have traditionally had lower levels of participation, such as those living in Scotland's most deprived areas (although levels of participation remain lower than average). However, increased participation has not been seen across all groups, such as those with a long-term illness or disability, or members of the minority ethnic population.

Recently, participation in outdoor recreation has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to social distancing measures and restrictions on travel and sports and exercise activities. During the first phase of lockdown in Scotland, between 23rd of March and 28th of May, it was found that most people changed the amount of time they spent outdoors. Some groups, including those aged 70 or older and those with long term health conditions, were found to have reduced their time outside due to concerns about the virus, while other groups, including women, young people and families, increased the amount of time they spent outside due to the health and wellbeing benefits they experienced from doing so.[4]

In order to inform policy and the planning of future interventions and communications aimed at widening participation and addressing inequalities, the Scottish Government in partnership with NatureScot, is seeking to better understand the factors that are driving increases in participation in outdoor recreation, the relative importance of these different drivers and barriers, and how these differ among different population groups. It is against this backdrop that the Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos MORI to explore these drivers and barriers to participation in more detail.

1.2 Research objectives

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 low-participation and equalities groups overcome. This information is intended to help the Scottish Government, NatureScot, and its partner organisations, increase and widen recreational use of the outdoors, reducing inequalities in participation, and ensuring everyone enjoys the benefits.

The key objectives of the research were:

  • to identify the specific factors that motivate different groups of people to visit the outdoors and to understand how these factors interact
  • to understand the relative importance of different factors among different population groups, including those where the increase of participation in outdoor recreation has been less evident
  • to provide an in-depth understanding of how and why behaviour and attitudes regarding visits to the outdoors have changed over the last few years, including any differences pre-COVID-19 and since COVID-19 times
  • to utilise this understanding to make recommendations on how any positive changes in behaviour and attitudes can be sustained over the long-term
  • to highlight opportunities to widen participation among lower participation groups.



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