Benefits of walking, hiking and running in parks

This survey and GPS tracking research studies movements of visitors and the benefits they accrue from walking, hiking and running in NSW national parks.

This research was presented in Wolf, I. D., & Wohlfart, T. (2014). Walking, hiking and running in parks: A multidisciplinary assessment of health and well-being benefitsLandscape and Urban Planning, 130, 89-103.

An author copy is available from

Background of study

Shelley Beach Walk, coastal heathland, Yuraygir National ParkParks provide a significant opportunity for people to relax, re-energise, rejuvenate and engage in outdoor activities. Health and well-being benefits can accrue in a number of ways when visiting parks. Simply being in or viewing nature may be beneficial, and especially physical activity can contribute to visitors' health and well-being. Physical activity in parks may be targeted exercise or incidental to other activities. Promoting physical activity in parks as an important resource for health and well-being may motivate people to engage more regularly in such activities, and therefore increase park visitation, and may also increase the value that people ascribe to parks.


This research focused on visitors frequenting national park trails for walking, hiking and running. Walking/hiking is consistently the most commonly named activity undertaken in NSW national parks. Surveyed were 371 park visitors >18 years of age in Blue Mountains National Park (BMNP) and Royal National Park (RNP) including 72.2% walkers, 18.6% hikers/bushwalkers and 9.2% runners along a selection of easy, moderate, and difficult trails. Energy expenditure during the activity was estimated based on trip parameters measured by equipping visitors with GPS tracking devices.

Visitor tracking in Royal National Park

Main insights and conclusions

Walkers spent on average 1.3 hours on the track covering a distance of 3.9 kilometres. Hikers and runners spent on average 2.1 hours and 1.2 hours, respectively, covering distances of 6.6 kilometres and 9.8 kilometres, respectively.

Visitors of the three activity groups were motivated to visit parks for a variety of reasons.

Percentage of participants stating a motivation as reason to visit the park

Percentage of participants stating a motivation as reason to visit the park(caption)

Participants' perceived physical effort during the activity was rated as moderate. On average, expected long-term and immediately experienced improvements, and the perceived joy gained from the activity were much higher than the perceived effort.

Graph showing effort versus improvements and perceived joy by walkers, hikers and runners in NSW national parks

  • Park visitors perceived considerable improvements in numerous health and well-being indicators. These increased with increasing activity levels from walking to hiking and running.
  • Energy expenditure accrued from walking, hiking or running was sufficiently high that, if done on a regular basis, this would mark the transition between a sedentary and an active lifestyle.
  • This applied also to physical activity incidental to other activities such as sightseeing, socialising, and experiencing nature.
  • People engaged more regularly in physical activities in parks the closer they lived to parks.
  • All three activity groups considered national parks in general highly important for improving their health or well-being, with highest ratings assigned by runners. Walkers and hikers thought that national parks were somewhat more important for improving their well-being compared to their health, while runners made no such distinction.
  • Both experience of immediate and expectations of long-term improvements increased with the level of activity from walkers to hikers and runners. However, ratings were well above the medium for all groups.
  • This research used surveys, interviews and innovative GPS tracking of park visitors. GPS tracking data were converted into trip parameters (trip length, etc.) and then input into two different equations using (1) 'Metabolic Equivalent of Tasks' (MET) (Ainsworth, et al. 2000), and (2) 'Functions of energy costs for walking/hiking and running' (Ardigò, Saibene, & Minetti 2003) to estimate energy expenditure during the park activity.
  • Visitors were interested in information about how specific characteristics of their walking/hiking/running trips (length, duration, covered elevations), and offered walking programs, yielded specific health and well-being outcomes; information was sought on putative health and well-being outcomes of different trails of different grades and distances mastered with specific activities. Such specific information, relating efforts to outcomes, was of much greater interest than generic information on parks and health.
  • In addition visitors sought information on tracks including: their location (GPS coordinates of track heads, .gpx track files of whole tracks); experience attributes such as level of difficulty, sights, suitability of trails/routes for different skill and fitness levels, the time needed to complete them.
  • Immediate feedback in the field on direct outcomes of park activities was sought. Small interventions such as park signage along tracks with regular distance and 'achievement markers' along with opportunities to share these achievements and tracks with other park users can provide an incentive for visitors to persist in their physical activity, and can encourage others to visit a park in the first place.
  • Interactive online maps with social media opportunities to share trip parameters were preferred means to access this information. Requests included: Customisable, interactive online maps, in lieu of text-heavy information; extensive filter options to generate personalised map information; comprehensive capacity of maps to yield experience profiles, recommendations, outcomes, and facilitate sharing.
  • Almost a fourth of the participants stated that they were already using GPS trackers to obtain trip data, and being able to share this information was considered an attractive feature of a park website or interlinked track-sharing site.
  • Benefits of park activities, particularly if incidental (sightseeing, etc.), were not obvious to all community members, and awareness needs to be raised about the positive outcomes of these activities.
  • There was substantial interest in: guided activities or programs that foster health and well-being in parks (yoga classes, etc.); facilitated unguided opportunities through establishment of communal meeting points for joint physical activity or exercise; fitness-trails like Zurich vitaparcours, as well as for transformative travel experiences such as meditation, cultural, barefoot walks or long-distance/iconic walks.