By: Desiree Hester
We know that exercise offers a myriad of benefits to our physical health. But how much does it improve our mental health? And what are the added benefits we receive when we take that exercise into the great outdoors? Today we’re going to take a dive in to the most basic of outdoor exercises, hiking, while we explore the effects it has on our mental health. Whether you’re keen on scaling the highest peaks or prefer taking a quick jaunt in the woods, there are numerous benefits to be found from going out on a hike.
Decreased Stress and Improved Mood
At a basic level, exercise produces endorphins. These powerful hormones are not only “nature’s painkillers” but they are known to cause a feeling of overall well-being. Hiking is a great way to access endorphins and unlock their mood-boosting powers.
A substantial amount of attention has been placed on researching the impact of time spent in nature on our mental health. Books like Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, as well as The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, have created a buzz around this topic. Their explorations of the benefits of time spent in nature, in an increasingly urbanized and technologically centered world, invite us to evaluate our lifestyles and consider how we can add in more time spent in the great outdoors. This topic du jour has led to fascinating studies and greater insight into the powers of nature on our mental health. One study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people who spent 90 minutes walking in nature showed a lower level of rumination (repetitive negative thoughts about oneself) and levels of neural activity in the area of the brain that is linked to mental health, than their urban walking counterparts. So, if you find you have a hard time shutting off the negative inner dialogue in your mind, taking a hike may offer some relief.
Perhaps you have heard of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing? Though forest bathing is now catching on in the United States, the name was first coined in the 1980’s in Japan. Forest bathing includes taking walks in nature with a special attention placed on using all of the body’s senses to take in the surrounding environment, while being as present as possible. One study, published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, observed participants in 24 forest areas of Japan. In each experiment 6 participants walked in an urban setting while another 6 participants walked in the forest. The study found that those who walked in nature had lower levels of cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone) than those who walked in nature. The forest bathers also experienced decreased blood pressure and lower heart rates. Forest bathing is a great practice for even the most novice hiker, as it is centered less on logging in miles and more on being present while walking in the forest.
When we strive to set challenging goals and succeed, our self-confidence can improve significantly. Hiking is a fantastic arena for pushing ourselves to new heights (both literally and figuratively). Perhaps (like me) you have a goal of tackling a fear of heights by trying a trail with a bit more exposure than you typically prefer. Or maybe you have your sights set on completing a long-distance trail that will test your stamina. A great goal may be as simple as deciding to spend one day a week out on the trail to unplug and improve your overall health. Wherever your motivations lie, successfully accomplishing your hiking goals will boost your self-confidence to new levels. I have definitely found that the more I get out and hike, the more my self-confidence grows. The more my self-confidence grows, the greater my desire to get out and challenge myself more increases. It is amazing to see what you are capable of as you incrementally make strides.
Do you ever feel that despite your best efforts you’re stumped on how to tackle a complex problem in your life? Or maybe you feel that your idea-well has run dry? Whether it’s an issue at work, in your family or personal life, taking a hike can help clear your mind and stretch your creative muscles. When I’m struggling to think outside of the box, I often feel an urge to head to the mountains. I don’t think this is coincidental- time and time again I return with fresh ideas and a clear mind that is more apt at making sound decisions. The famed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went so far as to say, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”. Conceiving these great thoughts comes best while walking in places free of the distractions of the modern world.
One study, conducted by Stanford University, sought to explore the change in creativity between participants who remained sitting versus those who walked prior to completing various tasks. Those who walked prior to completing the tasks averaged a 60% increase in creativity. When we take the process of walking to the outdoors, i.e. hiking, we can add the creativity-boosting influence of walking to the various other benefits found in nature.
So, if you find yourself feeling burned out, head to the great outdoors. The potent, positive effects of nature on your mental well-being will recharge your batteries and leave you better prepared to tackle the rest of your week. We hope you find, as the famed naturalist John Muir promised that, “in every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. Happy hiking!
About the Author: Desiree Hester
Desiree is a photographer, blogger, world traveler and creator of The Wayfarer Journeys travel website. Through her words and photos she aims to inspire others to dedicate more time to being in nature and to add outdoor adventure into every trip that is taken. Desiree believes that anyone can benefit from travel and time spent in the great outdoors- no matter their skill level. Whether in her beautiful home state of Utah or while traveling abroad, she can be found hiking, back packing, camping, snow shoeing, cooking a mean dutch oven meal or out on the lake with her wonderful husband and fearless adventure pup, Waldo. You can follow Desiree on Instagram at @thewayfarerjourneys