REI Co-op expands efforts to understand the link between time spent in nature and human wellbeing with a new study

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health invites co-op members in four cities to participate in inaugural study

Oct 30, 2019

Today, REI Co-op announces it has donated a $150,000 gift toward a long-term national study exploring the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of spending time outdoors. The study will be conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We are at a crossroads. We know through current research that the average American spends 95 percent of their time inside. At the co-op, we believe the nation’s growing disconnect from nature will only exacerbate rising rates of chronic health problems,” said Marc Berejka, president of the REI Foundation. “By supporting long-term research at Harvard, we aim to shine a light on the symbiotic relationship between health and nature. Nature is good for us, so we must be good to nature, and time outside should be part of every doctor’s toolkit.”

In the first phase of the study, researchers will hold a series of focus groups to understand traits and attitudes that influence individuals' nature-seeking behaviors. Volunteers in the greater Boston, Atlanta, Phoenix, and San Francisco areas are invited to opt in to the first phase of this study. On a first come, first serve basis, study participants will be selected from the pool of volunteers for regional, 15-person focus groups.

The outputs of these focus groups will be used to create surveys for subsequent phases of the research. In those phases, a broader group of study participants will provide data on how individuals differ in their patterns of nature engagement. Using a smartphone app, those study participants will contribute data as they reflect on physical, cognitive, and emotional changes after spending time inside and outside over the course of several months, with the goal of understanding how various measures of health are conditioned upon exposure to types of nature.

“We believe this research approach will provide evidence and support for deeper consideration of nature-based medical alternatives that complement traditional clinical healthcare and emphasize the need to pay closer attention to potential costs of our culture’s increasingly indoor lifestyle,” said Dr. Jose Guillermo (Memo) Cedeño, research associate in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School.

This research marks the next chapter in REI’s ongoing support for research into the health benefits of spending more time outside. REI has invested more than $1 million into research examining the link between health and nature, through its in-house philanthropy program as well as funding from the REI Foundation. These investments include support for work at University of California, Berkeley; University of California, San Francisco; Oregon Public Health Institute; and Earthlab’s Nature and Health program at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment.

Among the findings so far:

  • A seminal literature review by a range of experts at the University of Washington noted that, while more research is needed, nature contact offers promise both as prevention and as treatment across the life course. Potential advantages include low costs relative to conventional medical interventions, safety, practicality, not requiring dispensing by highly trained professionals, and multiple co-benefits.
  • Dr. Nooshin Razani at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland has found that a park prescription—a physician’s recommendation to spend time outdoors—can reduce stress among low-income patients.
  • In June of 2018, a peer-reviewed study by the Great Outdoors Lab (a collaboration between the Sierra Club and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center) concluded that getting outdoors improves physical, mental, and social well-being and that the emotion of awe experienced in nature is an important mechanism driving these effects. These benefits can be especially helpful, for instance, in assisting war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The cohort that participated in outdoor group activities reported improvements in self-confidence, diminished reliance on medications and alcohol, and more.

Harvard’s T.H. Chan researchers are currently seeking REI members and the general public to opt-in to this study. For more information and to see if you qualify, visit for more information on how to participate.

About the REI Foundation

The REI Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by Recreational Equipment, Inc. in 1993. The Foundation's mission is to help ensure that tomorrow's outdoor enthusiasts and conservation stewards reflect the diversity of America.

About the REI Co-op

REI is a specialty outdoor retailer, headquartered near Seattle. The nation’s largest consumer co-op, REI is a growing community of 23 million members who expect and love the best quality gear, inspiring expert classes and trips, and outstanding customer service. REI has 181 locations in 42 states and the District of Columbia. If you can’t visit a store, you can shop at REI.comREI Outlet or the REI shopping app. REI isn’t just about gear. Adventurers can take the trip of a lifetime with REI’s active adventure travel company that runs more than 100 itineraries across the country. In many communities where REI has a presence, professionally trained instructors share their expertise by hosting beginner-to advanced-level classes and workshops about a wide range of activities. To build on the infrastructure that makes life outside possible, REI invests millions annually in hundreds of local and national nonprofits that create access to—and steward—the outdoor places that inspire us all.