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Outdoor recreation and the well-being of rural residents
Insight from Scotland

Greater access to natural environments and opportunities for contact with nature afforded by rural living have the potential to drive differences in quality of life between rural and urban areas. Yet, while there is an established body of evidence on the well-being benefits of access to natural environments, much of the literature focuses on urban areas, with specific exploration of the rural context lacking. This chapter addresses this gap by investigating relationships between outdoor recreation participation and rural well-being, drawing on empirical data from Scotland. We present findings from a mixed-method research programme including qualitative research into nature-based interventions in rural Scotland and quantitative survey data analysis exploring the extent to which outdoor recreation explains variation in well-being across levels of rurality/urbanity, and inequalities in outdoor recreation participation. The findings support a view of rural natural environments as a health resource which, through outdoor recreation, can support the well-being of rural residents. However, there are disparities in engagement in outdoor recreation between demographic groups, indicating that such benefits of rural living are unequally distributed within the population and pointing to the value of targeted nature-based interventions. Furthermore, we observed differences between accessible and remote rural areas, including greater polarisation in outdoor recreation participation in remote areas and wider inequalities in relation to gender and ethnicity. Remote rural areas were, however, associated with frequent outdoor recreation by young people, a less pronounced drop-off in participation among older adults, and an apparent lack of area deprivation effects on outdoor recreation.


Living surrounded by ‘nature’ and close to opportunities for outdoor recreation is both a benefit of rural living for many and a driver of counter-urbanisation, including through second-home ownership (Adamiak et al., 2017; Halfacree, 2012). The COVID-19 pandemic has further heightened awareness of the value and potential of rural spaces as sites for healthy living, working, recreation and domestic food production (Weeden, 2020). As such, the natural environment has been implicated as a driver of higher levels of subjective well-being in rural areas (Gilbert et al., 2016; Verheij et al., 2008). However, simplistic narratives on the virtues of living in nature, which play into the nostalgic notion of the rural idyll, can distract from the less-than-idyllic realities of rural life (Shucksmith, 2018), and well-being in rural communities will be heavily influenced by individual and place-based circumstances.

This chapter explores the contributions that outdoor recreation and access to nature more generally make to well-being in rural areas using Scotland as a case study. In Scotland, rights of access to the land for recreational purposes (the ‘right to roam’) is well established. Current policy around outdoor recreation therefore focuses on promoting uptake of opportunities for outdoor recreation. This objective cross-cuts policy areas including environment and natural resources, health, spatial planning and tourism and is being delivered through initiatives such as the ‘Our Natural Health Service’ programme, led by NatureScot (Scotland’s nature agency), which aims to increase public awareness of the benefits of outdoor activity and embed nature-based health promotion initiatives into health and social care services.

Against this policy background, we present a rural viewpoint on relationships between natural environments and well-being, a field of research which has hitherto focused largely on urban settings and populations. The chapter begins by outlining theories linking outdoor recreation and well-being at the individual level and then discusses nature-based interventions to promote outdoor recreation in rural areas. It goes on to assess the overall contribution of outdoor recreation to the well-being of rural residents and examines issues around the inclusivity and accessibility of rural outdoor recreation opportunities. Finally, we consider the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to influence outdoor recreation participation (and inequalities in participation) in the long term.

Outdoor recreation and well-being: definitions and theory

In this chapter we draw on Bell et al.’s (2007) definition of outdoor recreation as referring to ‘activities that people undertake out of doors in places where they can access nature or green areas, mainly as part of their daily or weekend routines’ (p. 6). At the heart of this definition is the idea of recreational activities, which may be passive (e.g. sitting enjoying a view, picnicking) or active (e.g. walking, running, cycling, skiing, watersports), taking place in an environment where nature rather than built structures dominate. Additionally, we use the term ‘outdoors’ throughout to refer to open spaces in both urban and rural areas including woodland, parks, farmland, paths and beaches (Colley & Irvine, 2018). Due to its urban connotations, the term ‘greenspace’ has purposefully been avoided (unless specifically referring to vegetated spaces in urban areas). Lastly, we take a holistic perspective on the potential health and well-being effect of outdoor recreation. The WHO 1948 definition of health includes physical, mental and social well-being (World Health Organisation, 1998). We extend this biopsychosocial model of well-being (Engel, 1977) to consider spiritual well-being (McKee & Chappel, 1992) and broaden the mental dimension to include both its cognitive and affective components (Andrews & McKennell, 1980). Our conceptualisation of well-being thus incorporates five dimensions – physical, cognitive, affective, social and spiritual.

Spending time outdoors in nature is associated with a range of salutogenic effects, particularly in relation to mental health and well-being (Bratman et al., 2019). The evidence base in this area has grown significantly since 2010, largely driven by an increasing interest in promoting population well-being and providing antidotes to the stress of modern (primarily urban) living. Despite a rather urban-centred focus on the well-being benefits of greenspace, the types of benefits described and the mechanisms or mediation pathways through which these benefits are thought to be derived are equally applicable to rural settings. Markevych et al. (2017) characterise these pathways largely in terms of their role in restoration (restoring capacities which may have become depleted) and instoration (building capacities). Restoration in natural environments is largely discussed in relation to two processes: attention restoration and stress recovery. Attention restoration is a psychological process by which we are restored from a state of cognitive (attentional) fatigue through spending time in an environment that attracts our attention involuntarily (a quality termed ‘fascination’) and that promotes a feeling of ‘being away’ or escape from demands on our capacity to direct attention (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995). Stress recovery refers to the strong positive emotions and reduction in psychophysiological stress that may be experienced in non-threatening natural environments, theorised to have an evolutionary basis (Ulrich, 1986, 1993).

In relation to outdoor recreation, these restorative (capacity restoring) effects of nature may also be accompanied by instorative (capacity building) effects, most notably through physical activity and/or social contact, both of which are known to support mental health and well-being (Hartig et al., 2014; Jennings & Bamkole, 2019). Positive experiences of outdoor recreation, whether they be relaxing or exhilarating, physically active or passive, alone or with others, can also carry other benefits to our moods and our overall well-being through the development and maintenance of emotional attachments to place, feelings of belonging, self-determination and personal growth, connectedness to the natural world, and spiritual experiences (Cleary et al., 2017; Houge Mackenzie & Hodge, 2020; Irvine et al., 2019; Scannell & Gifford, 2017). According to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) we have three basic needs that motivate our behaviour and underlie personal growth and well-being: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Houge Mackenzie & Hodge (2020) use self-determination theory to explain how outdoor recreation can contribute to subjective well-being by fulfilling these needs.

Many outdoor recreation experiences take place in familiar locations close to home; theories centring on people’s relationships with place can thus bring further insight into outdoor recreation’s influence on well-being. Scotland’s People and Nature Survey 2019/20 (conducted pre-COVID-19) found that more than three-quarters of visits to the outdoors were to places visited at least once a week, and over three-quarters were to locations within 5 miles (8km) from home (Stewart & Eccleston, 2020b). Taking a place-based perspective on outdoor recreation and well-being, the everyday natural places where outdoor leisure experiences occur are often the locus of strong emotional attachments, and such experiences in place may contribute towards ongoing processes of shaping and reshaping personal identity (Colley & Craig, 2019; Irvine et al., 2013).

Interventions to promote outdoor recreation in rural areas

As a result of the development of the evidence base on the health and well-being benefits of contact with nature, strategies to promote the uptake of outdoor recreation have been in ascendance in public health and environmental policy. Here we focus on group outdoor health walks as a specific form of nature-based health intervention (Shanahan et al., 2019) being employed to engage rural communities in outdoor recreation. Health walks represent local opportunities for low-intensity outdoor recreation in a social setting, led by a volunteer walk leader and usually run through third-sector organisations (Irvine et al., 2020). We discuss our findings on health walks initiatives, drawing upon data from two research projects incorporating case study research within the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. Study 1, conducted in 2015–16, examined constraints to outdoor recreation for older people across three geographically varied case studies (urban, coastal town, rural). Study 2, conducted in 2016–18, evaluated a health walks programme run by the national park authority to promote outdoor recreation by local residents.

Social dimensions of health walks initiatives

In both studies, older people featured among the primary beneficiaries of these rural health walks programmes. Older adults are a particularly important demographic in the context of rural nature-based health interventions given the ageing profile of rural residents across Europe, driven largely by out-migration of young people, in-migration of people in mid-life who then age in place, and in-migration of people at or around retirement (Currie & Philip, 2019). Our qualitative case study research (Study 1) found that health walks can help overcome some of the key constraints to outdoor recreation for older people. These include social constraints around not having company to visit the outdoors with, including as a result of transitions in older people’s social lives that commonly arise in relation to this life stage such as the death or declining health or mobility of spouses or friends (Colley et al., 2016, 2019; Currie, Colley & Irvine, 2021). At the same time, the social context of health walks can deter some people who would prefer to focus on the natural setting rather than engage in conversation. In Study 2 (Irvine et al., 2020), while the majority of participants’ motivations to join were health-related, some were motivated by the social element, and it was this aspect that emerged as the most important factor motivating participants to continue to attend week after week. This was reflected in the study of older people’s constraints to outdoor recreation (Study 1), where participants who had been involved in health walks reported valuing the social benefits they experienced above all others, a finding which has also been reported elsewhere (Carpenter, 2013).

Health walks, and the social capital developed within health walks groups, can help to overcome some constraints experienced specifically (or more often) in rural contexts. Older rural residents in our comparative case study research (Study 1) were (unlike some urban participants) unlikely to report feeling fears for their personal safety in relation to the possibility of being attacked or accosted by others. However, several expressed a sense of vulnerability compounded by characteristics of the rural setting, such as a lack of accessible surfaced paths (and accompanying fears of falling on uneven ground) and unreliable mobile phone signals. Both studies highlighted that the social context of health walks, as well as the route having been scoped out in advance by a trained walk leader, provides a sense of security in the rural context (Irvine et al., 2022). Depending on car transport to access safe routes may also constrain walking in rural areas. One participant related an example of how social capital developed within their established health walks group helped one member to overcome this – when he became no longer able to drive other members provided lifts to enable him to continue to attend (Colley et al., 2016). We have used these and other qualitative insight to develop a conceptual model to facilitate assessment of the social dimensions of nature-based interventions such as group outdoor health walks (Irvine et al., 2022).

It is also notable that the majority of health walks participants in our studies were women. In their work on working groups, Morris et al. (2019) suggest that these nature-based health interventions are particularly successful at engaging older women, for which such groups may act as a ‘lifeline’. Some of our female participants felt that men may be put off by the gender imbalance, and one of the male participants stated a belief that a few of the women in the group would prefer not to include men at all (Colley et al., 2016; Currie, Colley & Irvine, 2021). Nature-based interventions aiming to change outdoor recreation behaviour should therefore consider how programmes might engage (or fail to engage) specific target demographics, including intersectional demographics.

Physical activity and physical health benefits

The increased capability to be physically active and the opportunity for social interaction were clearly benefits from involvement in the group outdoor health walk. One person noted that they had not seen the doctor since they started walking, and another noted that they were happier with life (Irvine et al., 2020). The health walk provided an important structure through which to develop a habit of walking outside. The incorporation of activity trackers as part of the twelve-week health walk programme (Study 2) was found to motivate participants to join the group and added to a sense of being an ally to support others on their fitness journey. A few participants mentioned the importance of the activity trackers for continued engagement; the step counts provided information about weekly progress and made them think more about their fitness levels.

Practicalities of nature-based intervention provision in rural areas

There is value in having a range of different walking group opportunities locally, targeted at different levels of ability as health walks are often a bit too gentle for some or too advanced for others. Individuals can then be supported to move, where appropriate, along a pathway of progression between walks pitched at different levels as health/mobility improves or declines (Colley et al., 2016). This poses challenges for providers to resource and staff outdoor walking programmes, and may be particularly salient in rural areas due to the relative sparsity of the population served and the relatively small pool of beneficiaries in a locality. Where a range of different options is available locally, these may vary in relation to the institutions involved and formality of the group governance; this diversity may mean that disruptions (e.g. to funding, leadership) threatening one walking group may lead to gaps in the pathway of progression for individuals.

Overall, our findings on nature-based interventions to promote outdoor recreation in the rural context demonstrate the potential value to participants but raise a number of questions about how investment in outdoor recreation promotion might be targeted geographically and within populations. Future research might consider the potential to overcome the challenges to delivering nature-based interventions appropriately tailored to the needs and desires of different target populations in low-density areas as it is clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ nature-based intervention to promote participation across groups. In the rest of this chapter, we take a step back from place-based case studies to examine more widely the role of outdoor recreation in the well-being of rural residents and inequalities in outdoor recreation participation in different geographies.

The contribution of outdoor recreation to well-being in rural areas

In Scotland, where 83 per cent of the population resides in urban areas, the countryside is often framed as a resource for outdoor recreation for city-dwellers and tourists; a destination for holidays and weekend trips, and an opportunity to escape from the towns and cities and reconnect with nature. Yet, as discussed above, data on the characteristics of visits to the outdoors highlights that very often people’s outdoor recreation takes place during short trips made close to home. In this chapter we focus on the role of rural nature and outdoor recreation in the lives of rural rather than urban residents as consumers of rural nature.

Previous research investigating variation in subjective well-being across urban and rural areas in Scotland found some evidence of living in remote rural areas being advantageous, as opposed to in accessible rural or non-rural areas (Gilbert et al., 2016). It was suggested that the differences in self-reported levels of life satisfaction observed in that study may be the result of benefits of remote rural living relating to environmental factors (i.e. greater access to natural environments and outdoor recreation opportunities) or social factors (such as greater levels of social capital and more cohesive communities). Epidemiological research has identified that some areas exhibit better population health and well-being than would be expected given the level of deprivation and structural inequalities associated with them (Cairns-Nagi & Bambra, 2013). These places that ‘defy the odds’ have been conceptualised as ‘health-resilient’ areas, with high levels of place attachment, natural capital and social capital implicated as factors supporting their resilience (Cairns-Nagi & Bambra, 2013). More recent work shows that rural communities with high levels of social capital are likely to have high scores of resilience following the COVID-19 pandemic (Currie, McMorran, et al., 2021).

Building on our previous research on geographical variation in well-being in Scotland, we sought to explore the extent to which the observed disparities in different types of rural and non-rural areas was replicated in a larger sample and using a different measure of well-being. We also extended the analysis to test the hypothesis that outdoor recreation and/or social factors can explain differences between urban–rural geographies. For this analysis we used data from the Scottish Household Survey, a large-scale population-representative social survey conducted annually by the Scottish government, combining two waves (2014 and 2016). A hierarchical regression model (Table 22.2) was specified to examine the well-being according to urbanity/rurality; outdoor recreation participation (whether respondent reported at least weekly visits to the outdoors or not); community belonging (low vs high feelings of belonging to the neighbourhood); and neighbourhood social capital (low vs high scores, scores derived from four items). Rurality was represented using the Scottish government’s six-fold urban–rural classification, a key feature of which is its distinction between accessible and remote rural areas, based on travel times to population centres. In respect to outdoor recreation, this distinction is salient in that it relates to the suite of (indoor and outdoor) recreational opportunities available to residents as well as to the differing employment and economic profiles of remote areas in comparison to more accessible or peri-urban localities. Well-being was measured using the short version Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (SWEMWBS) (Stewart-Brown et al., 2009).

Step 1 Step 2 Step 3
Large urban areas (ref) – – – – – –
Other urban areas .145* .074 .143 .074 .058 .073
Accessible small towns .530** .111 .522** .111 .377** .111
Remote small towns .423** .164 .372* .164 .313 .162
Accessible rural areas .220* .106 .197 .106 .050 .105
Remote rural areas .219 .137 .165 .137 –.021 .136
Outdoor recreation (>=weekly vs less often) – – .428** 0.61 .391* .061
Neighbourhood belonging (low vs high) – – – – –.386** .075
Social capital (low vs high) – – –1.214** .065
N 19,245 19,245 19,078
Adjusted R2 .110 .112 (Δ.002) .133 (Δ.021)

**p≤0.01 *p≤0.05. Ref = reference category Adjusted for age, sex, education, disability, ethnicity, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, area deprivation.

After accounting for area deprivation and individual-level socio-demographic factors, step 1 of the model showed that well-being was significantly higher in most of the urban–rural classes as compared to large urban areas (used here as a reference group). The exception was remote rural areas where well-being levels were not significantly different to the reference group. This is unlikely to reflect a lack of statistical power; although the rural remote sample was much smaller than the large urban areas reference group (n=1,159 compared to n=7,258), a significant difference was detected for the smaller ‘remote small towns’ subgroup (n=726), and SWEMWBS has been found to be sensitive to variations in mental well-being within much smaller samples. This finding contrasts with that of previous research which found higher life satisfaction in remote rural areas (Gilbert et al., 2016); rather, it lends some support to a theorised U-shaped relationship between urbanity/rurality and well-being (Verheij et al., 2008). Our operationalisation of urban–rural character does, however, eschew the concept of an urban–rural continuum in favour of discrete classifications based on a dual axis of settlement size and remoteness. Accessible rural areas were associated with higher levels of well-being than large urban areas, yet the greatest well-being advantage appeared to be associated with living in an accessible small town.

Steps 2 and 3 of the model investigated the role of outdoor recreation, neighbourhood belonging and social capital as mediators of the observed differences between urban–rural geographies. Adding outdoor recreation to the model (step 2) indicated that frequently visiting the outdoors was associated with higher well-being; however, the modest changes in the model R2 and B coefficients for the urban–rural classes indicated that outdoor recreation participation does not explain the differences between urban–rural classes found in step 1. In step 3, where neighbourhood belonging and social capital are added, the model explains more of the variance in well-being and the differences between urban–rural classes are attenuated to a greater extent. Given the cross-sectional nature of the data, we cannot draw conclusions about causal effects at play. It is possible that even after controlling for socio-economic factors such as area deprivation and education, associations between outdoor recreation and well-being here are driven by self-selection of people with higher well-being into areas with greater outdoor recreation opportunities. However, from this analysis we can conclude, first, that in considering geographical variation in well-being we must go beyond broad-brush urban/rural dichotomies as the variation within rural areas matters for well-being. Furthermore, it seems that the choice of well-being outcome may also determine the extent to which we observe differences across geographies varying in urbanity/rurality, as across our analysis presented here and that in Gilbert et al. (2016) we found different results for each of the three well-being measures modelled (SWEMWBS, life satisfaction and also the GHQ-12 measure of psychological distress which was not sensitive to urban–rural class [Gilbert et al., 2016]).

Inequality and inclusion in outdoor recreation participation among rural residents

There is a well-established international literature on inequalities in outdoor recreation participation, yet much of the research focuses either on urban greenspace or on outdoor recreation in the countryside by a geographically undifferentiated base of users or with an implicit focus on urban visitors to rural nature (Johansen et al., 2021). Consequently, less is known about issues of inequality and exclusion in relation to rural residents’ outdoor activity specifically.

We explored participation in outdoor recreation in rural areas in Scotland, using combined data from the Scottish Household Survey 2014 and 2016 (N=19,441). Figure 21.1 illustrates the frequency with which residents in accessible rural areas, remote rural areas and the rest of Scotland visit the outdoors for recreation. From this we can see that those living in rural areas are more likely to report a high level of participation (defined here as visiting at least on a weekly basis, in correspondence with the Scottish government’s National Performance Framework indicator) than in non-rural Scotland. However, the pattern in remote rural areas is notably polarised. Remote rural areas boast the highest proportion of residents engaging in at least weekly outdoor recreation (at 58.6 per cent, in comparison to 53.8 per cent in accessible rural and 47 per cent in the rest of Scotland), yet also the highest proportion engaging infrequently (1–2 times a year) or not at all (at 24.5 per cent, versus 17.6 per cent in accessible rural and 22.1 per cent in the rest of Scotland) (Figure 22.1).

It would be easy to assume that rural living automatically confers greater access to outdoor recreation opportunities, yet such an assumption is problematic for a number of reasons. First, living close to nature does not necessarily mean excellent physical access to natural environments. In Scotland, there are public access rights to most of the land, yet this is not the case in all countries. Even where access rights are established, poorer transport accessibility and active travel infrastructure (Hansen et al., 2015; Wilson & Copus, 2018), as well as potentially conflicting objectives for the land (Brown, 2016), can limit rural residents’ access to high-amenity areas. Second, aside from these physical characteristics of rural space, rural residents will, in common with urban-dwelling recreationists, vary in terms of their capabilities for accessing outdoor recreation opportunities – both in terms of physical capabilities and less tangible psychological capabilities – and the constraints to access they experience (Davies, 2018).

To explore variation in outdoor recreation participation between different population subgroups within these urban–rural classes we ran binary logistic regression models (Table 22.2). The models predicted the likelihood of reporting low use of the outdoors, and included covariates selected to represent groups with legal protections from discrimination on the basis of ‘protected characteristics’ in the UK Equality Act 2010. In addition to these categorical variables representing the protected characteristics of age, disability status, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and marriage and civil partnership status, we included the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which ranks small area units across Scotland according to area-level deprivation on a number of domains.

Accessible rural Remote rural Rest of Scotland
Age 16–25 1.296 .241** .985
Age 26–35 .709 .481* .793**
Age 36–45 .628 .805 .814**
Age 46–55 (ref) – –
Age 56–65 1.368 .872 1.282**
Age 66–75 2.067** 1.254 1.651**
Age 76+ 2.555** 2.210** 3.069**
Female .978 1.471* 1.105*
BAMEa .742 11.100* 2.368*
Disability 3.495** 3.374** 3.596**
LGBTOb .627 1.766 .663
SIMD1c (most deprived) .954 2.280 2.383**
SIMD2 2.162** .925 2.060**
SIMD3 2.001** .794 1.618**
SIMD4 1.439 1.005 1.291**
SIMD5 (least deprived, ref) – – –
Degree level education .388** .332** .421*
N 2242 1145 15858
Nagelkerke R2 .151 .180 .182

**p≤0.01 *p≤0.05. Ref = reference category

a Black or other non-white minority ethnic group

b Lesbian, gay, bisexual or other

c Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation

Across all geographies, those aged 76 and over were more likely than the 46–55-year-old reference group to report low participation. However, the odds ratios indicate that this disparity is narrowest in remote rural areas. Furthermore, in remote rural areas (in contrast to accessible rural) those aged 66–75 years were not significantly more likely to be infrequent or non-users. Another notable finding in relation to age was that in remote rural areas the youngest adults (aged 16–25) were significantly less likely to report low/no participation than the reference group. No such divergence was seen in accessible rural areas. This finding goes counter to perceptions of an underrepresentation of young people in rural landscapes (King & Church, 2013), and may relate both to a lack of access to indoor leisure opportunities for young adults in remote areas as well as to access to outdoor recreation opportunities in remote rural areas.

There were differences between remote and accessible rural areas in relation to gender and race/ethnicity. In remote rural areas the odds of residents from black and other non-white ethnic minority groups being infrequent/non-users were significantly higher than those of white residents, although it should be noted that this is based on a very small BAME subsample in remote rural areas (5 out of 1,159 remote rural residents). Askins’ (2009) work on ethnicity and landscape perceptions highlights feelings of alienation on the part of those of racial minorities, with English rural landscapes seen as monocultural; similar feelings of exclusion may contribute to the ethnic disparity observed in the Scottish data. There was also a clear difference between men and women, with women significantly more likely to report low levels of outdoor recreation. Gendered constraints to outdoor recreation can relate to time, feelings of entitlement to leisure vs caring responsibilities, resources and fears of sexual violence (Ghimire et al., 2014; Henderson & Gibson, 2013). No such racial or gender disparities were observed in accessible rural areas. These findings point to a need to address outdoor recreation inclusion particularly in remote rural areas, with non-white residents, women and (as in other geographies) people with disabilities being under-represented in terms of their use of the outdoors. Furthermore, one aspect which we do not address in the present analysis are potential inequalities in outdoor engagement across intersectional identity classes (i.e. representing the interaction of membership of multiple marginalised groups) such as women of ethnic minority backgrounds or women who have disabilities. Consideration of the ways in which people who are positioned at these intersections may have unique and complex experiences of inequity as relates to their likelihood of participating in outdoor recreation is essential to ensure that policies and interventions designed to redress inequalities do not result in some of their intended beneficiaries becoming further marginalised (Colley & Irvine, 2018).

Rural outdoor recreation in the context of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic had marked effects on (outdoor and indoor) recreational opportunities, as well as on aspects of working and home lives that can influence our time available for leisure and recreation. Some administrations prohibited all outdoor recreation during national and regional lockdowns, whereas in other areas outdoor recreation was permitted (albeit with limits on location, modes of access, duration and/or frequency). Outdoor recreation, for many, represented the only leisure opportunity available outside the home while social distancing and mobility restrictions were in place and has been recognised as playing an important role in supporting mental health and emotional resilience during the pandemic (Lopez et al., 2020).

While some sources reported an increased demand for greenspaces and natural environments in Scotland and elsewhere during lockdown (Stewart & Eccleston, 2020a; Venter et al., 2020), the majority of respondents in a UK survey during the first lockdown in spring 2020 said their use of greenspace had decreased (Burnett et al., 2021). The emerging evidence suggests considerable heterogeneity across space, time and population groups in outdoor recreation participation during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were at times challenges in meeting demand for greenspaces in high-density urban areas under physical distancing restrictions; at the same time, however, the spatial distribution of demand in rural areas is likely to have been much more variable according to the easing and tightening of mobility restrictions in specific areas. A survey in Scotland found that while participation in short walks, cycling and jogging was higher than normal during the first wave of the pandemic, visits to coastal and rural areas were down, as was participation in longer walks, hillwalking and off-road cycling (Stewart & Eccleston, 2020a). At the same time, the pandemic may be seen to have triggered conflict between rural and urban communities. Anecdotal and media reports of congestion in high-amenity rural spots and influxes of urban holidaymakers and second-home owners to rural and island areas followed the easing of mobility restrictions in the UK and elsewhere in Europe (Boterman, 2020). This led to concern about local outbreaks linked to the movement of people for recreation and has been seen to ‘spark anti-urban sentiment’ within rural communities, with the city being seen as a potential source of infection (Boterman, 2020, p. 514). Some have suggested that post-COVID-19 we may see a further increase in outdoor recreation-focused tourism as city-dwellers seek healing experiences as part of mental health recovery after the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic (Buckley & Westaway, 2020).

In relation to inequalities in use of the outdoors for recreation, evidence suggests that for some groups the disruption of COVID-19 may have brought about a change in practices which has the potential to narrow inequalities in outdoor recreation participation for some but widen the gap for others. For example, in Scotland, survey data found that women were among the groups most likely to report increased use of the outdoors during the first wave of the pandemic (Stewart & Eccleston, 2020a). It is not, however, clear the extent to which increases among women have the potential to result in a longer-term narrowing of what we refer to as the ‘gender gap outdoors’ if greater participation by women is attributable to wider gender inequalities during COVID-19, e.g. in respect to rates of furlough and division of childcare responsibilities during school closures (Sevilla & Smith, 2020). At the same time, UK survey data from slightly earlier in the pandemic showed a contrasting picture, with women more likely to report decreased visits to greenspace than men (Burnett et al., 2021). These studies were, however, consistent in the observed effect of the pandemic on older people’s outdoor recreation behaviour. Both report older adults as among the groups most likely to report decreased use of the outdoors during lockdown (Burnett et al., 2021; Stewart & Eccleston, 2020a), with older people indicating concerns about safety and desires to follow the rules as limiting their time spent outdoors. In the post-COVID-19 era, it will be important to consider not only the constraints to outdoor recreation experienced by different groups, but also the potential of the COVID-19 pandemic to act as a moment of change in which the shifts in our everyday physical and social worlds bring about disruption and reshaping of habits (Verplanken & Wood, 2006), for better or worse.


Much of the literature on the value of contact with nature and outdoor recreation focuses on the urban environment and the well-being of urban populations. In this chapter we presented a rural view of nature–health relations, drawing upon primary and secondary empirical analyses of data from Scotland and an interdisciplinary body of literature, to critically examine the value of outdoor recreation for the well-being of rural residents. Rural natural environments can be seen to represent a health resource which, through outdoor recreation, may support the well-being of rural residents. At the same time, however, rural populations are characterised by heterogeneity, and there is good reason to believe such heterogeneity may be reflected in the benefits experienced by different individuals and groups within the population. There are disparities in engagement in outdoor recreation between demographic groups in rural areas, suggesting that these benefits of rural living are far from equally distributed. Furthermore, we observed clear differences between accessible and remote rural areas, including a polarisation in outdoor recreation participation in remote areas that is not seen in accessible rural areas. Future research might seek to further explore how nature-based health interventions in different geographies might best engage different subgroups of the rural population in order to open up greater opportunities for residents to enjoy the outdoors on their doorstep. Such interventions may be particularly valuable in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as actors representing health and environment interests in the public and third sector seek to build on progress in outdoor recreation uptake seen in some demographic groups, but also to engage other audiences who have had less engagement with the outdoors during the pandemic. As such, outdoor recreation may play a role in addressing the mental health crisis that we currently face and supporting the resilience of rural areas in the recovery from the pandemic.


This research was funded by the Scottish government under the Rural Affairs, Food and Environment (RAFE) Strategic Research Programme 2016–22. The authors would like to thank the participants in the studies included for their time and insights, and also Professor Ruut Veenhoven, Dr Henrik Lauridsen Lolle and Dr Laura MacLean for their helpful reviews of chapter drafts.


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