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.

4. Factors motivating participation in outdoor activities

Participants identified a range of motivating factors that acted as drivers of participation in outdoor activities – their reasons for doing the activity – that encouraged them to start or maintain their participation, such as a desire to improve their fitness or spend time with their friends and family.

Alongside these motivations were factors that acted as enablers or barriers to starting or maintaining participation. Rather than being the reason(s) for doing an activity, these were factors that made it easier or more difficult for someone to participate in an activity. These included both individual, internal factors, such as having the knowledge or confidence to do the activity, and external factors, such as being able to access locations at which to do the activity or being able to afford the equipment required. These enabling factors and barriers are explored in detail in Chapter 5.

This chapter explores the different factors that motivated participants to take part in outdoor activities and the influence of these motivations across different behavioural outcomes – motivating participants to start an activity in the first place and to maintain their participation over the longer term. These motivations rarely existed in isolation but were instead found to build and reinforce other motivations, and participants were typically motivated by more than one factor.

The factors are summarised in Figure 2 below. Most factors motivated participants both to start and to maintain activities. The exception was mental health benefits, which were important in sustaining participation in outdoor recreation, but were not a factor that had encouraged participants to start doing outdoor activities in the first place.

Figure 2: Motivations to starting and sustaining outdoor activities

Physical health

  • Motivations for Starting: Desire or need to improve physical health and fitness
  • Motivations for Sustaining: Experiencing the physical health and fitness benefits

Mental health

  • Motivations for Starting: [Not mentioned]
  • Motivations for Sustaining: Experiencing the mental health benefits

Social and family benefits

  • Motivations for Starting: Way of spending time with family and friends; benefits to others in their household
  • Motivations for Sustaining: Existing role played by outdoor activity in social lives

Desire to be closer to nature

  • Motivations for Starting: Wanting to see more of Scotland's scenery and wildlife
  • Motivations for Sustaining: Satisfaction and enjoyment gained from being closer to nature

Learning or discovering new places

  • Motivations for Starting: Desire to learn something new and expand own/family's horizons
  • Motivations for Sustaining: Experiencing the benefits of learning and discovery of the outdoors

These motivating factors are described in turn below.

4.1 Improving and maintaining physical health and fitness

4.1.1 Role in starting outdoor activities

A desire to improve physical health and fitness had a particularly important role in motivating people both to start and to continue taking part in outdoor activities. Participants driven by this goal had chosen to start activities they thought would help them to improve or maintain their overall fitness and stamina, lose weight or be more physically active in general - typically walking (both hill walking and recreational walking more generally), and fitness activities like running or cycling.

"I climbed my first Munro about four years ago... [I started] because I love the Loch Lomond and Glencoe area and it's a good way to stay fit." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

"I started walking [because] I had reached a weight I had never been before, and that was a big trigger." Female, aged 26-40, rural area

Older participants had typically started an activity to help them stay physically mobile and active, which they thought would help to alleviate some of the physical symptoms of ageing.

"I mainly [started cycling] for fitness but a lot of it was to do with menopause and joint pain […] I was trying different things to help it and I found that actually moving was the best thing, keeping your joints moving. So being active is the best thing to cope with many of the symptoms." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

Others with specific health concerns had been motivated to start due to the perceived physical health benefits of an outdoor activity. This was a particularly important motivating factor for participants with long term health conditions (e.g. diabetes or musculo-skeletal problems) who hoped that regular exercise would help them manage or improve their condition. Being advised by their GP to start exercising was one example of a trigger to begin.

"I was getting weighed and having borderline diabetes issues and the doctors were always saying I need to lose weight and exercise more. But I was never one for enjoying dieting or going to the gym. But I started [hill] walking and cycling and I kind of caught the bug." Male, aged 41-64, urban area

Younger minority ethnic participants of South Asian origin also reported having been motivated to start outdoor activities due to concerns about their long-term health, specifically the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which they knew was more common in their ethnic group.

"Diabetes is rife within my community. If I am to get that down the line why not make an early start at [preventing] it. If I know about the situation, I can control it at an earlier age than later down the line." Male, aged 26-40, urban area

In terms of the specific activities participants chose to improve their physical health and fitness, younger participants and those looking to achieve a higher degree of fitness improvement and/or weight loss tended to choose more physically demanding fitness activities such as running, cycling or hill walking. Older participants, or those with a disability or long-term health condition, were more likely to have started walking for recreation more often. Walking held particular appeal among this group because it was seen as an accessible and manageable form of exercise for someone of their age and ability that could easily be incorporated into their daily life and which helped them to remain active and mobile, particularly after they retired.

"The longer you keep going and the more mobile you are, the less you will feel crippled – it's to do with joints and muscles. If you're feeling stiff, you can [go for a] walk." Male, aged 65+, rural area

These types of outdoor activities were generally seen as preferable to indoor exercise, especially among participants who said they were 'not a gym person'. These participants reported that they found it more enjoyable and stimulating to take exercise outdoors, rather than indoors on a treadmill or exercise bike.

"I wouldn't go to the gym three or four times a week just for the physical activity. I choose a physical activity that gives me fresh air and views." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

4.1.2 Role in maintaining participation in outdoor activities

Experiencing the physical health and fitness benefits that they had hoped for when they took up the activity also encouraged participants to maintain their participation. They reported experiencing a number of physical health benefits, including increased energy levels and weight loss, as a result of these activities, which motivated their ongoing participation.

"I'm relatively fit so I don't find [hill walking] too challenging, though occasionally it can be hard, but I always push through because I know it's doing me good, and then after it I always feel energised and better." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

"I did manage to lose weight [walking], almost half a kilo a month." Female, aged 26-40, rural area

Highly active participants tended to say they had maintained an active lifestyle since they were young and, as discussed in the following chapter, saw outdoor activities as part of their personal identity or aligned with their personal values. Among this group, continued participation in activities like running, cycling and hill walking helped them to maintain their fitness levels. High levels of fitness were required for them to pursue physically demanding hobbies or goals such as long distance cycling, Munro bagging or marathon running.

Participants reported experiencing negative effects if they were unable to do an activity as much as they normally would. These included a drop in fitness and energy levels, feelings of lethargy and the development of 'bad habits' more generally, such as reverting to a more sedentary lifestyle or unhealthy eating habits. A desire to avoid these effects helped to motivate regular, ongoing participation.

"If I'm not out [running] as much it's so easy to do things like not watching what you eat, and you get out of that fitness frame of mind." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

Older participants and those with physical health conditions who had started an activity to increase and improve their mobility found that the activity did indeed help them to achieve this, which encouraged them to keep doing it. These participants noted detrimental physical effects such as soreness and having difficulty moving when they did the activity less frequently.

"If for some reason you can't get out, you feel sluggish, your body just feels not at 100 per cent. It's not functioning the way it should." Male, aged 65+, rural area

"If I'm stuck in the house for long periods of time, I feel rubbish. I'll feel more stiff and sore if I don't go [walking] regularly enough." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

One participant of South Asian origin, who had started hill walking in part to manage his diabetes, had been inspired to continue by a member of his walking group who said that regular hill walking had helped him reverse his condition.

"One of the guys was on meds because of his diabetes and by joining our [walking] group he has pretty much eliminated most of his medication." Male, aged 65+, urban area

4.2 Mental health benefits

Mental health benefits experienced through doing outdoor activities were among the most important drivers of ongoing participation. However, despite the importance that participants gave to the mental health benefits, these were not directly mentioned as a reason for starting an activity. These benefits were something participants noticed as a result of doing an activity, rather than being a driver that motivated them to start an activity in the first place.

Participants tended to talk about the mental health benefits of an activity in relation to recreational walking, although cycling and running were also mentioned. These activities were credited with helping participants maintain and improve their mental health and wellbeing, both during and after the activity, allowing them to clear their mind and to relax and unwind, by getting away from the distractions or worries of home or work-life responsibilities.

"The walking definitely sustains me mentally. I feel calmer and able to deal with stress better." Female, aged 41-64, rural area

"I find [walking] calms me and you're getting away from your chores and the TV. You can hear your own thoughts a bit better and you get peace to think about things and the people that are no longer with you." Female, aged 41-64, rural area

These activities helped to improve participants' mood, and could often make them feel happier or more positive by easing any worry, stress or anxiety they were experiencing. They also had the benefit of improving sleep quality, due both to the effects of physical exercise and helping them to relax more.

"[Walking] improves my concentration, and I feel happier and more relaxed. Especially when I go to bed, I can sleep better." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

These benefits were particularly important for participants during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, with outdoor activities often giving them an opportunity for respite from home or work, and in some cases, from worries relating to the pandemic itself.

"As someone who works from home in front of screens, this 40 minute walk is a godsend and freshens up my mood and energises me for my day ahead." Male, aged 26-40, urban area (app diary phase)

"It doesn't take very long for any staleness from sitting about in the house all day or for any of this bad news in the papers to go away. After about ten, fifteen minutes [walking], that's away at the back of your mind, so you feel better quickly." Male, aged 65+, rural area

Other positive mental health benefits were mentioned by participants who took part in activities they found physically demanding – for example, hill walking, running and cycling. These participants talked about experiencing a sense of achievement and fulfilment, or a feeling of positivity or elation, from completing a challenging, physical activity and/or being able to achieve a goal, such as reaching the top of a Munro or completing a run.

"When you come back [from hill walking] you feel fresh and it's like having a high dose of coffee, I think, you're really buzzing." Male, aged 26-40, urban area

"It was a lovely day today, so it felt good getting outside and getting some fresh air. I enjoyed it also because it's a long walk and intense at the start so when you reach the top you also feel some kind of achievement." Female, aged 26-40, urban area (app diary phase)

Just as detrimental physical effects were experienced when participants reduced their outdoor activities, negative impacts on mental health and general wellbeing were also noted. Participants reported feeling more tense, frustrated or bad tempered than usual and, therefore, felt strongly that outdoor activities played an important role in helping them to manage their mental health, which helped motivate ongoing participation. This was particularly true for those with mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

"If I can't get out as much, I feel anxious, edgy and cooped up. I just want to get out." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

"It's important, because if I don't [do it as much] I get more irritable. I do get low moods, there has been periods where I have had to go on antidepressants, so as part of my self-care [walking] really is very important." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

Reflecting previous research on the topic,[9] the mental health benefits of outdoor activities could be linked to specific aspects of the outdoor environment. In general, these environments were seen as being 'good for the soul' and more conducive to relaxation and reflection than being indoors or in a busy urban environment.

"I think more than anything else [hill walking] helps clears my head. There will be times when [I am] just contemplating things and working things through, planning for the week after and I get to do that in a very non-stressful way. I think it is more from being outdoors and in the fresh air because I do indoor sports as well and it's not the same." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

Participants typically spoke of the mental health benefits of being outdoors in relation to natural and 'untouched' environments, such as the countryside or the beach. These environments provided opportunities for 'peace and quiet' away from the distractions of home and the busyness of urban environments, such as crowds and traffic. Participants noted that, as a result of being in a more peaceful environment, their mood improved and they felt calmer and more relaxed, both during and after the activity. There was also a belief that being outside in the fresh air and sunshine (weather permitting) invigorated them and made them feel more positive in general.

"I started [hill walking] more because I got fed up going to the gym or doing indoor activity, and I wanted to be outside, getting fresh air. It's my time for peace and quiet, going to the top of a hill and being the only person there. I crave the solitude and it's really helped my mental health." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

4.3 Social and family benefits

4.3.1 Role in starting outdoor activities

Social motivations were a further driver of participation, with participants motivated in this way reporting that one of the main reasons they started an activity was to spend time with family or friends.

One way in which this had happened was by participants who had done certain outdoor activities with their families when they were children restarting similar activities in their adult life once they had a family of their own. These activities were opportunities for families to spend quality time together:

"If the family are going out [together] it is to make memories, to bond, and to have experiences together." Male, aged 26-40, urban area

In another example, one participant of South Asian origin recounted his family's recreational walking trips which had initially started both as a way of getting different members of the family together outside of gatherings such as birthdays and holidays, and as a way of getting their children outdoors and "away from their phones and laptops". However, these trips had rapidly grown in popularity and become a much wider social activity after he started posting photos on social media and other family members and friends started to ask if they could join them on future walks. The popularity and frequency of the outings grew to the extent that he realised there was a demand for these activities among this minority ethnic group in his area and so, with his family members, he founded a walking group for the Asian community in Scotland.

"Having a community feel and knowing like-minded individuals will be going along has helped it grow. And by getting kids involved we hope the community will continue to participate in growing numbers." Male, aged 26-40, urban area (app diary phase)

In other cases, participants, particularly those who were new to an area or to Scotland, started an activity because they saw it as a good way to make and maintain new friendships or social groups. They reported starting an activity after being asked or encouraged by family or friends to join them in an activity – for example being invited by a group of friends to go hill walking or cycling – or because the social group or club they were part of, such as a church or community group, organised the activity for its members.

"I started my [university course] in 2015, and the group of friends I made there were all into hill walking so I went with them." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

While participants had typically started an outdoor activity for the benefits to them personally, some started an activity for the benefits to others in their household, for example, parents who had started walking or cycling with their children. Alongside the benefits of spending time together as a family, these activities had the added benefits of keeping their children active and, in some cases, giving them a break from screens.

"The problem is that the children they want to be on gadgets all the time, so I [suggested] to do an outdoor activity with [them] and they chose bike riding." Male, aged 41-64, urban area

A further motivation was to facilitate a child's hobby – for example, taking up cycling, or going for regular walks so a child can pursue their interest in photography.

"We started [cycling] a few years ago, really just because it's something my son enjoys." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

"The girls are interested in photography now, so I've been going out [walking] with them a lot more." Female, aged 41-64, rural area

Parents were motivated to do such activities with their children by values such as this being part of 'being a good parent' or it being important to them to enable their children to experience new things and take part in activities they enjoyed. These factors could help participants to overcome any resistance they themselves felt towards doing an activity. For example, a single parent whose health condition (fibromyalgia) limited her participation in outdoor activities said that the importance of taking her son out and giving him opportunities to stay healthy and enjoy himself could help her to overcome any difficulties she had motivating herself to go out.

"My son is absolutely my motivation. He loves getting out and about. Sometimes my illness can create barriers, but I still go out and he can do things and I'll just watch." Female, aged 41-64, urban area

4.3.2 Role in maintaining participation in outdoor activities

The social benefits of outdoor activities were also important in maintaining participation, with outdoor activities often playing an important role in participants' social lives.

Activities such as recreational walking provided an opportunity for participants to meet and spend time with family, friends, or members of a club, like a walking group. These could be regular social activities that had become part of weekly or monthly routines, or more occasional or ad hoc arrangements.

"I do quite a lot with my wife, if we're going to the beach or cliffs, because she really likes the seaside. And we have pals, two sets of pals, both of whom are keen walkers, and that's when we go for longer walks because we meet up with them regularly and specifically do these walks." Male, aged 65+, rural area

Social benefits were also particularly important for participants involved in team sport activities like football or hockey, for whom the social aspect of the activity was a central motivating factor.

"[Playing hockey] is a social thing, it's to keep fit, it's a break away from everything else that's going on… But [my main reason for doing it] is probably the socialising side of things." Male, aged 26-40, urban area

The social aspect of outdoor activities had become particularly important during lockdown restrictions, since outdoor meetings were one of the few ways in which participants could see people from outside of their own household. This was particularly evident in the app diary phase of the research where meeting up with a friend was a key motivation for taking part in an activity.

"Due to lockdown, going for a walk is the only way we can meet other people, so it cheered me up catching up with a friend. The exercise was also great as the rest of the time I'm at home and walking helps me relax and sleep at night." Female, aged 26-40, rural area (app diary phase)

"It is always uplifting to get out in the fresh air with a friend especially at present when we are so restricted." Male, aged 65+, urban area (app diary phase)

There were examples of outdoor activities increasing in social importance over time – where a participant had started an activity to improve their fitness, for example, but was motivated to continue more because of the social benefits experienced. Indeed, in some cases, outdoor activities were predominantly social activities that participants reported they would rarely, if ever, do on their own, because they felt they would not get the same satisfaction or enjoyment out of it.

"You get good banter with everyone, so I much prefer [hill walking] with a group." Male, aged 26-40, urban area

"The social side [of golf] is very important to me. A chance to catch up with friends. I would be reluctant to play alone." Female, aged 41-64, urban area (app diary phase)

Participants also reported that doing an outdoor activity with others brought about increased mental health benefits. For example, participants derived satisfaction and enjoyment of being in the company of friends or family, or felt a sense of camaraderie in taking part in a group or team activity.

"The group walking is different [than walking alone]. It just gives you a good feeling to be with people. It's good to be together and share things and have a laugh really. And you can help some people if they have got problems and give advice." Female, aged 65+, rural area

The social benefits of activities also had particular importance for older participants. Outdoor activities were one of the main ways in which they met with other people outside their household and so were a key aspect of their social lives. Older participants living alone also found that doing outdoor activities with others helped to alleviate any loneliness or boredom they felt at home.

"Particularly since I've been living on my own, I would say the main reason [I play golf] is the social side. I look forward to going out, I enjoy it when I'm there and I feel better for having been out in the fresh air and meeting people." Male, aged 65+, urban area

4.4 Being closer to nature

Enjoying Scotland's scenery and wildlife provided further inspiration for starting activities that involved being outdoors and closer to nature.

"I love Scotland and wanted to see how it looked from the top of a mountain." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

In particular, minority ethnic participants who had moved to Scotland mentioned Scotland's scenery and abundance of greenery as something that had inspired them to start taking part in outdoor activities, like walking and cycling, saying that it had not always been easy or comfortable to spend time outside and close to nature in their homeland due to the hot climate.

"I come from Mumbai in India, which is very humid and very hot, so you tend to not get as much time [outside] with nature, and I really enjoy just being able to be outside in Scotland and with that much green around it is really nice." Female, aged 26-40, urban area

This factor also played a role in ongoing participation, with participants reporting satisfaction and enjoyment from these aspects of the outdoors. Participants noted that, since starting an activity, they had developed a greater appreciation for the outdoors and the natural landscape, and an interest in aspects such as observing the local wildlife and noticing the effects of the seasons.

"When you're cycling you can stop any time you like and watch whatever you like, whether it's curlews in the field, or herons or red squirrels … So you can be out and see things that you would never see from a car." Male, aged 65+, urban area

"I think it is really important just to be out and about, and it is gorgeous. Sometimes I just have to stop and just take pictures of it, especially now in autumn, with all the leaves going yellow and red." Female, aged 26-40, rural area

"I particularly like the footpaths because it's away from the road so it's very pretty and peaceful. Today I saw a red squirrel and that made my day as they're usually quite shy and hard to spot." Female, aged 26-40, rural area (app diary phase)

An interest in nature was evident among participants living in rural areas, who felt particularly connected to their local environment. Some explained that they were interested in local conservation and felt it was important to check on the impacts of human activity on the landscape over time.

"I've got a beautiful view, I've got outdoor space, I can go right up there to the top of the hill and walk down, and I can walk about the hills. It is very beneficial for me, I just love it." Female, aged 65+, rural area

"We appreciate the space that's around us and it's important to see how it's doing. In some places we can see how it's been damaged by things like game shooting." Female, aged 41-64, rural area

4.5 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. These activities, typically walks or outings to local sights and landmarks, including paid spaces, were motivated by cultural interests such as seeing new places in Scotland or finding out about its history. Parents viewed this as particularly important, in order that their children could discover and learn more about Scotland.

"These trips expand your knowledge about places… and it's good to go places the kids haven't been to so they can learn about them." Female, aged 41-64, rural area

"Every summer I choose a different place, like a beach, to visit with the children. I have always thought that we need to do something new with the children [for them] to experience different things." Male, aged 41-64, urban area

These activities had also been started by participants who had recently moved to a new area in Scotland, including minority ethnic participants who were relatively new to Scotland, as a way to familiarise themselves with their new locality or Scotland more widely.

"We have started these family walks since we came to Scotland. My children are always excited about the different animals we can see on the walks, and we learn about the area we live in." Male, aged 26-40, urban area (app diary phase)

4.6 Understanding change over time

This research provides an in-depth look at the factors motivating people to start and to sustain outdoor activities. Since it is not a longitudinal study, it cannot tell us with any certainty how participants' behaviours and attitudes towards outdoor activities have changed over time, as we do not have any prior data points to compare with.

Participants were however asked to reflect on how their behaviours and attitudes towards visits to the outdoors had changed over the past few years. Analysis of this data provides some indication as to the factors that may underlie the shift towards increased participation in outdoor recreation in Scotland.

Inevitably there will also be other factors not mentioned by the research participants directly that are likely to have influenced this shift, such as a greater societal focus on maintaining physical and mental health and wellbeing, and on staying active in retirement. Existing evidence has already highlighted some factors that may have contributed to the increases, namely:

  • an increase in the proportion of people in Scotland participating in recreational walking since 2007, although participation appears to have plateaued more recently[10]
  • an increase in the proportion of shorter duration outdoor visits and visits taken closer to home, indicating that more people are finding opportunities to explore local nature[11]
  • an increase in the numbers of people walking to the destination of their outdoor visit rather than using a car[12]
  • increased investment in the provision of green space, paths and routes close to where people live[13]
  • increased awareness of the physical and mental health benefits associated with visiting the outdoors and spending time in nature ('health and exercise' is identified in Scotland's People and Nature Survey[14] (SPANS) as a main motivating factor for outdoor visits), along with increased provision of opportunities to participate in organised activities, such as Health Walks or Park Run.

Based on our qualitative research, key factors that may have played a role in increasing participation in outdoor recreation include:

  • patterns laid down in childhood – participants spoke of outdoor recreation having always been part of their lives through regular family activities
  • trying outdoor activities as a result of friends or family who already do these activities encouraging others to come with them
  • greater leisure time being available at particular lifestages, such as young adulthood or retirement (conversely, both parents of young children and older parents reflected on how they had reduced or stopped particular types of outdoor activities when their children were young)
  • an increase in dog ownership – participants explained how getting a dog had meant that they had to get outdoors regularly to walk it, and there were those who had got a dog partly for this reason
  • advice from health professionals – for example, the trigger of being advised by a GP to start exercising to help manage or improve a health condition was a motivation for some to start outdoors activity
  • technological advances which have meant that there are more tools (such as apps) available to people to help them start and sustain their participation in outdoor activities, and
  • more activity-based social groups having been established (such as minority ethnic walking groups).

As this indicates, there are numerous factors that influence individuals' participation in outdoor recreation. The guiding principles for intervention design outlined in the final section of this report take into account this range of factors that had led participants to increase and sustain their participation in outdoor activities.



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