More People Are Getting Outside and Playing, Study Shows

The Outdoor Industry Association finds outside time is replacing screen time.

Biking and walking in Central Park, April 2020
Biking and walking in Central Park .

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The outdoor industry in the U.S. is huge: It generates $788 billion in consumer spending and directly employs 5.2 million people, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Like everyone else in the world, the trade organization is wondering what life is going to be like post-pandemic and commissioned a study, The New Outdoor Participant, to find out how it has changed and whether these changes will outlast COVID-19.

The study found that a lot more people were getting outside, primarily walking, running, and cycling — activities that can be done alone, close to home, and without a lot of equipment. The challenge or the opportunity for the industry is how to keep them outside.

"The top reasons for starting an outdoor activity during the pandemic include getting exercise, staying healthy, and getting out of the house," reads the report. "Walking is the most commonly reported new outdoor activity. One-quarter of new participants report that they picked up running/jogging and/or bicycling. Birdwatching and fishing form a third tier of new or resumed activities."

These changes present an opportunistic challenge to urban planners and politicians, who have been dealing with conflicts between more people being outside and drivers who hate giving up lanes, parking, or being slowed down with low-traffic zones. They can all learn from this study as well.

Mix of users
Outdoor Industry Association

One of the biggest changes during the pandemic was in the mix of who was getting out and doing this. Pre-pandemic, it was more male, older, whiter, and richer – all used by the car crowd to claim that they were giving up space to elitists. However, the mix has changed significantly towards women; it's younger and more urban.

With everything closed or restricted, there hasn't been a lot else to do. It was also time that many people used to spend watching TV or screens. However, the report sees an opportunity: "Screen time has historically been a barrier to spending time outside, but the pandemic has created screen fatigue which can be leveraged to get more people outdoors."

People also started going outside because it was the only place they could meet people. "Getting exercise, staying healthy, and getting out of the house are the top reasons new participants took up outdoor activities," write the authors of the report. "About 40 percent took up new outdoor activities to spend time with others."

The study authors suggest the industry could build on that. "Promoting outdoor activities as safe and fun ways to spend time with friends and family could lead to stronger retention among new participants," they write.

The big question for the industry, but also for the urban designers and planners, is how many of these people plan to keep it up. Fully a quarter of those surveyed say they will not; they want to go back to movies and restaurants, or they prefer the gym and in-person fitness classes.

But 66% of those taking up walking and cycling, and 61% of the runners and joggers want to continue. They need safe places to walk and run where they are not inhaling exhaust fumes. And, they want it close to home, as one notable takeaway from the report is that "new participants are largely motivated by outdoor recreation opportunities with low barriers to entry that are available and accessible within 10 miles of their homes, including walking, running, biking and hiking."

"Some participants reported being inspired to re-evaluate their priorities and focus on what is important," the report states. "Outdoor activities are a cost-effective antidote that can serve as the social fabric that brings kids, families, and communities together safely, and can be a powerful part of making long-term positive life changes."

Richard Florida
Richard Florida. Screen Capture

One of the few positive things from the last year has been the dramatic increase in the use of our parks and our sidewalks by people getting exercise. Author and professor Richard Florida was recently on a panel discussing the future of cities and noted that he was out there walking miles every day (and lost 25 pounds!) meeting neighbors he never knew. And this is a guy who has spent decades studying and writing about cities.

Waltham Forest Streets 4 All
Waltham Forest Streets 4 All

Yet, everywhere that streets were calmed, or bike lanes were installed, the "streets for all" — or really, "streets for cars" — people are out in force to open things up again, claiming they are defending people who are disadvantaged or disabled, and that the only ones benefiting are rich white dudes.

The new outdoor participant study was written for the industry, but it has lessons for many others. It tells us that we have to maintain these quiet streets and make these bike lanes permanent. It shows there are more people using the city for more than driving, they are more diverse, and they are not going away.

View Article Sources
  1. "National." Outdoor Industry Association.

  2. "2021 SPECIAL REPORT: NEW OUTDOOR PARTICIPANT (COVID AND BEYOND)." Outdoor Industry Association. 2021.