Have you ever taken a hike, strolled through a park, gone for a swim outdoors, or just sat in your yard and found yourself suddenly feeling better, more relaxed—even fulfilled? Well, it’s not your imagination or an illusion. The truth is that being outside and around nature has very real benefits to both your physical and mental health. More and more, scientists and researchers are connecting the dots between a healthy environment, access to the outdoors, and healthy humans. (As if we needed another reason to love our planet!)
According to Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, “There are many physical and psychological benefits of nature that scientists have observed, which can better help us understand how nature supports wellness in the body, mind and community.”
Improving Your Physical and Mental Wellbeing
From a physical perspective, being outside in green spaces supports an active and healthy lifestyle, which can increase life expectancy, improve sleep quality, and reduce the risk of various cancers. In addition, being outside in nature often promotes relaxation, which in turn reduces stress, cortisol levels, muscle tension, and heart rate – all major contributors to cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to mental wellness, being outside can lower a person’s risk of depression and promotes faster psychological stress recovery. Studies also show that being in nature can restore and strengthen our mental capacities, increasing focus and attention.
According to University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman, PhD, “Green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviors.” Even just looking at trees has been shown to be able to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve mood.
Exploring the Outdoors with Others
The benefits of being in proximity to healthy outdoor spaces are not just about personal benefits. A recent study conducted by L.L Bean and University of California Irvine (UCI) shows that “Those who spent time outdoors in company of others…said the experience was 28% more meaningful and 37% richer.” In other words, being in nature can help create deeper, more meaningful social connections. The natural world around us is helping to bolster the social fabric of our societies.
With more studies coming out weekly, the connections drawn between human health and nature will only increase. Whether you look at this issue from an ecological or human perspective, the importance of creating healthy, green spaces and providing access to outdoor recreation is obvious.
The list below represents a selection of nonprofits helping to do just that.
16 Nonprofits Prioritizing the Outdoors
Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) prioritizes the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the outdoors, envisioning a world where nature and our natural resources are loved and properly cared for. Participation with AMC supports the conservation and stewardship of the natural world by building and maintaining trails, protecting public lands, and supporting outdoor conservation.
Austin Parks Foundation (APF) works to improve outdoor public parks, trails, and green spaces throughout Austin, Texas through volunteerism, advocacy, innovative programing, and financial support. APF helps supplement the City’s parks funding and resources, empowering the local community to create a parks system that meets their needs.
The mission of Bay Area Ridge Trail is to promote, protect, and sustain hiking, cycling, and equestrian trails on the ridgelines around San Francisco Bay. Through trail advocacy, fundraising, and stewardship, Bay Area Ridge Trail provides access for people to engage with and enjoy the outdoors in a safe, well-maintained setting.
Buckeye Trail Association is made up of dedicated, outdoor-loving volunteers who maintain and promote the Buckeye Trail with a mission of sustaining a world-class hiking trail, providing safe and unique ways to enjoy Ohio’s natural resources. The Association continues to seek new ways to grow and improve the trail—from relocating parts of the trail away from roadways to upgrading overall trail quality.
Promoting, preserving, restoring, and enhancing Olmstead Parks and Parkways is the goal of the Buffalo Olmstead Parks Conservancy in Buffalo, New York. More than one million people utilize these resources annually and deserve to be provided with safe and healthy natural places for relaxation and recreation amid a largely urban landscape.
Chicago Parks Foundation helps to drive community action and outreach as well as raising funds and awareness for the Chicago parks. These funds go towards restoration and park enhancements, community partnerships, and ensuring the parks remain a safe, accessible resource for all Chicagoans and visitors.
Connecting people and land throughout Connecticut is the goal of the Connecticut Forests and Parks Association (CFPA). This mission includes providing and protecting access to forests, walking and hiking trails, parks, and various other natural open spaces. Staffed by conservation professionals, CFPA has a variety of available programming on environmental education, land conservation, and public policy.
Promote, create, and maintain walking and hiking trails throughout the state of Florida—this is the mission of the Florida Trails Association. This includes the Florida National Scenic Trail, which is one of only eleven national scenic trails in the country. Florida Trails Association works to maintain and protect public trails that allow visitors to experience the unique nature, culture, and history of Florida.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge helped to lead the creation of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area 40 years ago and continues to maintain and steward the land with the goal of protecting the natural wonders of this landscape for generations to come. Friends of the Columbia Gorge continues to protect from irresponsible land development by purchasing sensitive lands for long-term preservation.
Friends of the Mountains–to–Sea Trail unites hundreds of volunteers from across North Carolina to help maintain and protect the 1,200 miles of footpath. From advocacy for public, outdoor, green spaces to improving trail routes and safety, Friends of the Mountains–to–Sea Trail works to protect and educate others on the natural treasures of North Carolina.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail spreads throughout Wisconsin and highlights some of the oldest and most scenic landscapes in the state. Ice Age Trail Alliance works in tandem with other partners and collaborators to protect, preserve, and enhance the trail, making it an accessible space for anyone who wants to enjoy unique glacial settings.
A voice for national parks across America, the National Parks Conservation Association has a membership of 1.6 million passionate individuals (and growing). Volunteers, lobbyists, community organizers, and specialists work together to advocate for our national parks and protect them against threats of pollution, mining, toll roads, oil and gas drilling, and more.
Taking on urban forestry and environmental education in Silicon Valley, Our City Forest believes in the power of trees to change neighborhoods and communities—even entire cities. From local students to community members, Our City Forest teaches about the benefits of trees, shrubbery, and green spaces while also informing people how to properly take care of these plants.
Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation provides a voice to 121 state parks (consisting of more than 2.2 million acres of land. The organization continues to inspire stewardship of these lands in order to enhance these outdoor resources. With the help of donors, volunteers, and activists, the Pennsylvania Parks and Forest Foundation is able to operate public lands that benefit everyone.
Trailkeepers of Oregon are dedicated to trail maintenance projects as well as advocacy and stewardship for Oregon’s historical hiking trails. With the help of dedicated volunteers, Trailkeepers works to protect, restore, raise funding, increase awareness and provide accessibility for this critical outdoor resource throughout the state.
Washington Trails Association works with hikers and other volunteers who love the outdoors to care for and steward trails and public lands throughout the state of Washington. With a belief that time spent in the environment is good for physical and mental health, Washington Trails Association strives to give all visitors an opportunity to access the outdoors in a safe and barrier-free space.
Inspired by the organizations and initiatives you see here? Want to see your nonprofit represented in a list just like this one? Good news—our Network (500+ nonprofits strong) is open for enrollment. Reach out to [email protected] to discuss the requirements for becoming part of our truly diverse, dedicated group of environmental orgs.