Walking through nature in a group sounds like a lovely way to spend an afternoon, but can it lower depression? According to a new study from the University of Michigan, the answer is yes, suggesting potential health benefits of national outdoor group walk programs.

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Group nature walks are effective at promoting mental and emotional well-being, according to the latest study.

Although it is well known that outdoor walking groups encourage interaction with nature, social engagement and physical activity, until now, little has been known about how effective they are at promoting mental, emotional and social well-being.

A recent study published in April suggested that walking boosts creative thinking, while another from July suggested brisk walking is therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Though the health benefits of going for a good walk are wide ranging, researchers from this latest study focused on the mental benefits of the activity. Their results are published in the journal Ecopsychology.

To conduct their study, the team, led by Dr. Sara Warber, associate professor of family medicine, evaluated nearly 2,000 participants from the Walking for Health Program in the UK, which organizes almost 3,000 weekly walks each year.

“We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside, but there haven’t been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being,” says Dr. Warber.

Results from their study show that group nature walks are linked with “significantly” lower depression, less stress and better mental health and well-being, both before and after controlling for covariates.

Additionally, people from the study who had recently encountered stressful life events – such as a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment – experienced a mood boost after outdoor group walks.

Commenting on their findings, Dr. Warber says:

”Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise, and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster.

Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.”

The team cites an increase in mental health issues and physical inactivity in the developed world for why they seek to explore new ways to help improve quality of life and well-being.

“The present study identifies the mental and emotional well-being benefits from participation in group walks in nature and offers useful information about the potential health contribution of national outdoor group walk programs,” the researchers conclude.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested cycling or walking to work improves psychological health, compared with driving.