Group outdoor activities therapeutic for veterans

Photo credit: Arthur Tilley
Photo credit: Arthur Tilley

HealthDay News -- For military veterans, participation in group-based outdoor recreational activities correlates with benefits in psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook, researchers found.

“This approach is especially intriguing since many veterans may find nature recreation programs more appealing than conventional clinical treatments,” Jason Duvall, PhD, and Rachel Kaplan, PhD, both of the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, stated in a report prepared for the the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative.

Many veterans struggle with psychological issues following their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. As more troops return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, managing these physical and mental health issues have emerged as important public health issues in recent years.

Although anecdotal and experimental data suggest nature recreation programs may be beneficial, few studies have examined the effects of such programs on veterans. So Duvall and Kaplan surveyed participants in 12 different multi-day group-based nature recreation programs that provided retreats and outings for them and their families.

In total, 98 veterans were recruited and surveyed one week before, one week after and about one month after participation in a four- to seven-day group outdoor recreation experience. The majority of the participants were male (78.4%) and aged 30 to 49 years (58.6%). Most of them had served in the military during the previous 10 years (78.5%), and almost half (44%) had served in the previous five years.

More than half (54%) reported physical or mental health issues that affected them on a daily basis, while 70.4% had been treated for mental health issues or substance abuse since their last deployment.

Changes in psychological well-being, social functioning, life outlook and activity engagement over time were assessed using self-reports on a five-point scale. The self-reports asked questions such as “In the last few weeks, how often have you felt like your life had clear goals or purpose?” and “When confronted with a difficult situation how frequently do you try to look on the bright side of things?” with possible responses ranging from “never” to “very often.”

The activities included backpacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting and fly fishing, and the focus was kept on the actual exercises rather than the therapeutic aim of the study.

“While the purpose of these programs was to enhance the health and well-being of veterans, the majority of programs did not include any formal, structured psychological counseling or therapy,” Duvall and Kaplan explained.

Participation in group outdoor recreation experiences were associated with a number of benefits. One week after the outdoor experience, significant improvements were reported in psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook; there were indications that these improvements persisted at one month.

After the outdoor experience, participants reported being more likely to participate in activities that involved exploration and to listen to and help others. Many reported lower levels of stress and higher levels of tranquility. Veterans who initially reported more severe on-going health issues had particularly strong positive changes.

“The positive outcomes associated with these programs can partly be attributed to spending time in restorative natural environments, however there are a number of other aspects of this experience that likely play an important role, such as personal challenge and companionship with other veterans,” the researchers wrote.

They noted several study limitations, including the small sample size and the diversity of the activities, which makes pinpointing exactly what type of activities are the most therapeutic difficult. They recommended further research, particularly studies that examined long-term effects more closely.

References

  1. Duvall J and Kaplan R. University of Michigan. "Exploring the Benefits of Outdoor Experiences on Veterans." Report prepared for the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative. June 2013. Available at http://www.sierraclub.org/military/downloads/Michigan-Final-Research-Report.pdf.
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