Changes In Outdoor Recreation Participation


group holding Project Get Outdoors banner

Minnesota has a strong tradition of nature-based outdoor recreation, with participation well above the national average for activities such as boating, fishing, and hunting. But Minnesota is not escaping the dramatic national trend of declining per-capita participation in nature-based outdoor recreation. The decline includes many of the core outdoor activities DNR encourages, such as state park and trail visitation, hunting, and fishing.


Generational Shift in Participation

Indicators of Trends in Nature-Based Recreation in United States and Minnesota from 1996 to 2006

trends chart

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The primary driving factor behind these trends is a decline in nature-based outdoor recreation among young adults (ages 20-40) and their children. Today's young adults are not as engaged in nature-based activities as were baby boomers. This news does not bode well for the future of outdoor recreation because parents and other family members are often the ones who introduce youth to the outdoors.

Secondary Factors Behind Participation Declines

In addition to the primary factor, a number of secondary factors contribute to the declines in outdoor recreation participation. As the population ages, participation in recreation activities generally declines. Similarly, as our state has become increasingly urban as well as increasingly racially/ethnically diverse, participation in traditional outdoor recreation activities has generally declined. How Minnesotans recreate is changing. All of these secondary factors have increased, and they will require DNR to adapt how we provide nature-based recreation opportunities.

The Great Outdoors: Not What It Used to Be?

cartoon of children in front yards working on computers - sign says Caution Children At Play

People take part in outdoor activities for many reasons. According to Minnesota's 2004 Outdoor Recreation Participation Survey, the top reason is simply to enjoy nature. The second leading reason is exercise and feeling healthier, which reflects a traditional linkage between recreation and a healthy lifestyle. Other reasons include an opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends, and an escape from the pressures of modern life.

Yet today we are seeing a fundamental shift away from nature-based outdoor recreation. What is replacing outdoor recreation in people's lives? A recent study of U.S. national park visitation yielded some surprising results. It found that four variables explained 97.5% of the decline in visits to national parks. These were: time spent on the Internet, time spent playing video games, time spent watching movies, and oil prices.

There is a risk that if people continue to lose their connection with the natural world, there will be fewer constituents committed to the conservation of natural resources.

Alarming Rise of Obesity in Minnesota

Proportion of Minnesota Adults
Overweight and Obese

chart of MN adults overweight and obese

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The replacement of vigorous outdoor activities by sedentary, indoor lifestyles has far-reaching adverse consequences for our physical and mental health, for our economy, and for natural resources themselves.

Six out of 10 Minnesotans are overweight or obese. And 33% of Minnesotans have high cholesterol, 22% have high blood pressure, 6% have diabetes, and 26% have pre-diabetes. Prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents in the United States quadrupled among 6- to 11-year-olds and more than tripled among 12- to 19-year-olds between 1971-1974 and 1999-2002.

These troubling statistics have led some experts to predict that this generation of American children may be the first ever to have a shorter life span than their parents. And the financial cost of obesity is tremendous. Based on national estimates, Minnesota's obesity cost was $1.3 billion in 2004. And weight-related disease is being diagnosed at younger and younger ages, which will likely lead to more lifetime health-related costs.