Health and Wellbeing in an Outdoor and Adventure Sports Context

This blog is an adaption of a recent publication published here


Outdoor and Adventure Sports (OAS) provide opportunities for generating physical and psychological benefits, whilst also delivering unique qualities unrelated to physical activity in nature and directly impact on the health and wellbeing of participants and provide ideal interventions for mental health outcomes. Research on the outcomes of OAS has been growing over the last three decades and our understanding of how they enhance health and wellbeing is developing. The traditional notions are being questioned and individual differences, such as feelings of connection to nature, and the person-environment relationship are being investigated. Outdoor and adventurous activities, from forest schools to extreme sports and beyond are more nuanced examples of physical activity in nature allowing focus on reconnecting people to the natural world. A recent special edition edited by myself and colleagues from Leeds Beckett Univeristy( concerning the impact of OAS on health and wellbeing, added to our understanding of (i) the diverse and powerful outcomes derived from adventure experiences (ii) how adventure experiences facilitate these outcomes, and (iii) how best to design outdoor and adventure experiences if health and wellbeing is the program aim.

Health and wellbeing outcomes are available across multiple participant groups. Submissions pointed to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how adventure facilitates the positive outcomes. Ideas such as adventure facilitating an embodied experience seemed key for many authors. Learning from adventure experience is directly attributable to individual capacities to continue to adapt to everyday life when interventions are applied to a military context. Designing adventure experiences to facilitate health and wellbeing outcomes requires different underlying principles than planning for other outcomes such as skill development. Various papers within this special edition point to a more informed understanding of the principles involved. Intervention design must be deliberately intended to impact on everyday life, be developmentally appropriate, progressively adaptable and be evidence-based. A sound theoretical framework that justifies and supports this process is vital. Designing interventions that facilitated immersive, optimal, integrated and meaningful experiences rather than short, disconnected interventions seems key.
Key learnings from this special edition include:

1. OAS are powerful facilitators of health and wellbeing outcomes. However, they become even more meaningful to people when deliberately designed for such outcomes.
2. Unique aspects of OAS activities and programs exist, such as the role of discomfort, immersion in nature, progressive adaptability and physical challenge, that cannot be replicated by similar activities (for example traditional sports) which are directly linked to the development of enhanced health and wellbeing outcomes.
3. Design of OAS program need to consider the intended outcomes, active ingredients of potential change, the group/individual characteristics, the environment and the activities. One size does not fit all, and it is not ideal to use generic ‘off the shelf’ program designs.
4. Health and wellbeing outcomes from adventure experiences have a long-term positive impact on everyday life

The impact of the Human-Nature relationship on wellbeing

Evidence from research into the relationship between human beings and nature points to enhanced wellbeing benefits. Learning about how these benefits come about is now essential if we are to ensure that interventions and experiences are good for the planet and people. In a recent study we interviewed a number of people who reported wellbeing benefits from being in nature in order to better understand the characteristics of their experience. This process of reflection led to the formulation of an essential psychological structure of the lived experience of the natural world. The lived experiences were explicated using a combination of phenomenological psychological methodology and relational psychoanalytic reflexivity. We found that participants experienced the human-nature relationship in similar terms to psychoanalytic concepts, and in particular, relational constructs based upon an understanding of the primacy of attachment relationships. Five main relationships emerged from the research
1. Nature was described as being similar to a nourishing primary attachment made during childhood and then perceived as nourishing,
2. Nature was experienced as a secure base which facilitated play and a sense of being home
3. People also described a sense of being at one with nature or a part of nature.
4. Nature was also experienced as containing in the sense that nature soothed emotions and feelings
5. Finally, nature was experienced as embodied in the sense that the experience was primarily sensory and emotional.
The paper, published in frontiers in psychology as part of a special edition on nature and wellbeing extends previous empirical descriptions of the human-nature relationship by incorporating psychoanalytic processes and theory into a theoretically informed qualitative methodological stance. The findings further demonstrate that a convergence between phenomenology and psychoanalysis might offer a richness of understanding human-nature relationships, a perspective not often attainable through more traditional quantitative research methodologies.

Research article:


Integrating humanity as nature: a Stoic and Buddhist perspective

Interacting with nature enhances health and wellbeing. However, we still no little about how this relationship works. A better understanding of this relationship is essential for the development of programs designed specifically to improve the wellbeing of participants. To date much of the research exploring the relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world has remained in the deterministic traditions relying on the Cartesian notion of ‘subject’ and object’. Nature is seen as an object for the benefit of people and understanding how benefits happen is about understanding the impact of the object (i.e. natural environment) on the subject (i.e. people). This perspective of “nature” as the physical world outside our skin (except artificial technologically created objects) is fundamentally flawed. People are part of nature and therefore at a fundamental level being human is also being nature. However, the pull of modern western culture tends to focus on how we are separate from or estranged from nature as opposed to being part of. Natural environments are most often perceived to be ‘places’ often with minimal human interference. For ancient philosophers of most ancient Greek and eastern schools, nature includes people. Nature is understood as a process of life, of which human beings are an immanent part. Returning to nature and remembering that we are nature is essential for health and wellbeing. An often overlooked philosophical perspectives from the Buddhist and Stoic traditions provide a solid framework to guide intervention designers. For both traditions the only way to reach the state of awakening or flourishing is to surrender to natural laws. Stoicism and Buddhism propose that human flourishing is not achieved by ego expression, but rather by adjustment to the natural world, including the rhythms of the natural environment. Combining these similar concepts from Buddhist and Stoic philosophy provides a comprehensive picture of how the natural environment might enhance human wellbeing. In particular the Stoic notion of oikeiōsis and the Buddhist notions of mind awakening. The complementarity of these two approaches when combined provide effective guidance for the design and implementation of interventions for facilitating wellbeing through experiences in the natural world.

For the full paper:
Fabjanski, M. & Brymer, E. (2017) Enhancing health and wellbeing through immersion in nature: A conceptual perspective combining the Stoic and Buddhist traditions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1573.


Exercising in nature is better for psychological wellbeing

For some years now research from a variety of scientific fields has found that physical activity in the presence of nature and feelings of being connected to nature are linked to enhanced psychological health and wellbeing benefits. However, there has sometimes been confusion about whether the impacts measured are because of increased physical activity or the effects of the natural world. A new study that we recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology aimed to investigate the long term psychological health and wellbeing impact of the physical activity environment for those already undertaking the UK physical activity guidelines weekly amount of physical activity. The topic is important for the design of health and wellbeing environments and interventions involving physical activity. We measured trait and state anxiety, physical activity levels, wellebing and also peoples connection to nature.
What we found was that psychological wellbeing scores were high and anxiety scores were low for all participants. Which is what you would expect given that all particpipantss were physically active. The exercise environment didi not play any part in either trait anxiety or wellbeing. However, what was really interesting was that there did seem to be a link between feeling part of nature and wellbeing There was alos a relationship beyween feling connected to nature and overall trait anxiety, and trait somatic anxiety. IN summary this study provides further evidence that feeling connected to nature is linked to enhanced psychological health and wellbeing. While regular exercisers might benefit from exercise alone, individual differences with regards to the level of connection with the natural world, seem to impact on the benefits observed.



Can sport deepen an environmental identity?

Sport participation can deepen environmental identity if certain principles are followed. However, traditional sports are founded upon competitive notions and the achievement of task goals with little interaction between participants and the natural environment. Research suggests that the best way to develop or deepen an environmental identity is to experientially interact with the natural world in a manner that enhances emotional engagement. Outdoor and adventure sports emphasise the relationship between the sport participant and the natural environment which if harnessed effectively suggest that outdoor and adventure sports might be the ideal medium for deepening an environmental identity. The theoretical framework, Ecological Dynamics and its focus on the person-environment relationship provides an ideal model for understanding this process. The model is ideally suited to understand how sport participation can create a deeper environmental identity because a key presupposition is that behaviour emerges from an interactive relationship between the individual and the environment. In contrast to traditional psychological theories of behaviour change and learning that emphasize the role of individual attitudes and capabilities, this approach argues that the environment has an equal status to the individual. That is, a conducive environment is often more likely to have long lasting effects on behaviour than attempts to change the individual. Affordance theory suggests that theoretical perspectives that focus on the form and structure of nature (how nature looks) might be limited as a theoretical explanation for developing an environmental identity. Attempting to deepen an environmental identity through enhancing the aesthetics of nature might be limited. Instead, ecological dynamics proposes that a focus on function is more effective. This is important as it suggests that the development of an enhanced environmental identity is more likely to take place when individuals are physically active in nature in a manner that enhances their relationship with nature, emotional connection to nature, and the realisation that they are part of nature. For sport participation to encourage an environmental identity emotional engagement affordances are needed and the learning context needs to be representative of the everyday world.

  1. Sharma-Brymer, V., Gray, T., Brymer, E. (Forthcoming) Sport Participation to Create a Deeper Environmental Identity with Pro-environmental Behaviors. In McCullough, B. P., & Kellison, T. B. (Eds.). Routledge Handbook on Sport and the Environment. NY: Routledge.

Evoking the ineffable

Over the last four decades the world has been witness to an unprecedented interest in and engagement with extreme sports. While activities are still evolving for the most part extreme sports are unique in that they involve physical and psychological prowess as well as a particular attitude towards the world and self. Research into extreme sports is still in its infancy and as a result we are still developing our understanding of participants who engage in extreme activities such as BASE jumping, big wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, extreme mountaineering, and solo rope free climbing. Phenomenology has provided a glimpse into the lived world of the participants and a more nuanced way of interpreting the experience that has moved us beyond the notion or risks, death defiance and the no fear concept. In a recent article to be published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness we extended this even further and presented data that drew upon interviews with 15 extreme sports participants across three continents. In particular we highlighted three aspects of the extreme sports experience not traditionally considered in sport research let alone linked to extreme sports. The first notion that emerged from the data was that the core of the experience was profoundly embodied and beyond words. Even highly educated participants were unable to express the central structure of their lived experience. Instead they spoke in metaphors and simile’s but still determined that only by living the experience could it be truly determined.  Participants described a powerful feeling of vigour where senses are enhanced and everyday experiences of factors such as time change. Extreme sports seem to also facilitate transcendence. The findings provide a valuable insight the experience of the participants and contribute to our understanding of the range of human volition and experience.

Brymer, E, & Schweitzer, R, D. (Forth coming) Evoking the Ineffable: The phenomenology of extreme sports, Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice

The extraordinary nature of extreme sports


Taking a phenomenological approach to research really does open up new and interesting notions. The idea that extreme sports are just about risk is very quickly proving to be a difficult notion to define, rather like building a castle of sand. A more nuanced research program is starting to show that extreme sports have unique qualities in that they involve physical prowess as well as a particular attitude towards the world and the self. Participants who engage in extreme activities such as BASE jumping, big wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, extreme mountaineering, and solo rope free climbing enjoy experiences that are far outside of normal everyday experiences and yet open to any of us if we choose to participate. You do not need a special kind of personality but you do need commitment, tenacity and a profound knowledge of self, the natural world and the activity. Participation opens up all sorts of extraordinary experiences many of which are beyond the capacity of words to describe bit are non-the-less important and real. In our lasts paper we outline the ineffable experiences in extreme sports, those that point to a deep sense of out place in the world. The findings provide a valuable insight into the experiences of the participants and contribute to our understanding of human volition and the range of human experiences.


The article will be published in 2017 a special edition of Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. I will keep you posted when I know more.