British youth immune to the great outdoors

Research shows teens impervious to emotional benefits of fresh air.
Research shows teens impervious to emotional benefits of fresh air.
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THERE’S no point in telling them to get outside and get some fresh air any more. New research suggests that teenagers have become immune to the psychological benefits of the great outdoors.

The new study claims that today’s adolescents have become so “disconnected” from nature and the outside world that going there has no impact on how well they feel.

The research, to be presented at a pre-Olympic convention in Glasgow next month on science, education and medicine in sport, recorded the psychological benefits of outdoor and indoor exercise on a group of teenagers aged around 12 years old.

It found that unlike adults, who reap the mental rewards of exercising outside, the outdoors had no effect on the self-esteem of young people.

Carly Wood, a PhD student at Essex University who carried out the research using the Rosenberg self-esteem questionnaire, said: “The current generation of adolescents seem to be psychologically disconnected from nature, perhaps as a result of the continuous reduction in the opportunity to interact with it. With adults, previous studies have shown physical activity outdoors leads to greater improvements in self-esteem than an equivalent physical activity indoors.

“But we found that when adolescents were outdoors engaged in physical activity it didn’t have any effect on their self-esteem.”

The study took a group of 27 teenagers and analysed the effects of indoor and outdoor cycling on their physical activity and mental well-being over a period of three days. They were asked to rate their self-esteem both before and after exercise and the results showed no difference between the two environments.

“In adults it has been found that exercising in a natural environment improves their psychological health but obviously what we’ve found amongst teenagers contradicts that,” said Wood. “What we’ve put this down to is that a lot of young people don’t have much contact with nature any more. Their parents don’t take them to the park as much as maybe previous generations and so they feel disconnected and don’t get out in it and interact with it a lot.”

Educational psychologist Alan McLean agreed that young people were becoming increasingly remote from the outside world.

“It’s an increasing trend,” he said. “There has been a disconnection for the last 30 to 40 years, because of the TV, the video and the power of the Playstation, which is incredibly powerful.

“Childhood is really the place for young people to be exposed to the outdoors, and the more you’re exposed to it, the more open you’re going to be to it in later life.”

However, he also said that maturity may play a role in the findings.

“Maturity makes people more aware of nature and that’s probably a big factor as well. When you’re young you take things for granted and it takes you a long time to appreciate beauty and countryside and so on, and so that would probably be the most logical process that the older you get, the wiser you get, and the more tuned into nature you become and the more you benefit from it.”

However, the research did find teenagers were likely to spend longer exercising if they took part in physical activity outside instead of inside.

“When they were exercising indoors they found it harder, or perceived it to be harder, even though they were performing the same amount of exercise,” said Wood. “So it suggests we do need to encourage more young people to do exercise outside, even if they don’t reap any mental benefits.”

Andrew Pankhurst, of Cycling Scotland, said that the results were potentially worrying. “We think it’s hugely important that our young people don’t lose their connection to nature in the way the research suggests they may be,” he said.

“Cycling is one of the best ways to access the countryside, and Scotland has some of the best mountain bike centres and touring routes in the world, so it would be very worrying to see research suggesting the next generation may be growing up with a diminishing interest in getting the most out of these opportunities.”

The International Convention on Science, Education and Medicine in Sport takes place in Glasgow from 19 to 25 July. The congress will bring together academics in the field of sport from more than 80 countries.