“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves,” wrote John Muir in Our National Parks. Clearly, John Muir understood the intrinsic value of spending time in nature. So, when Muir followed up by saying, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks,” he was clearly on to something.
Along with Muir, many of us recognize that hiking in nature is good for the body, mind, and soul. Walking through the woods while observing colorful birds and foliage, smelling the aroma of spruce and pine trees, and listening to a soothing running stream simply clear our mind and make us feel good. Lucky for us, doctors and researchers agree. Study after study shows there are many mental health benefits to spending time hiking in nature.
Hiking in Nature Reduces Rumination
Those who ruminate or focus too much on negative thoughts about themselves can exhibit anxiety, depression, and other issues, such as binge eating or post-traumatic stress disorder. In a recent study, researchers investigated whether spending time in nature affects rumination, and they found that hiking in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts.
In this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through an urban environment and a nature environment. They found that those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment, which took place in a grassland near Stanford University, reported lower levels of rumination and had reduced the neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with mental illness. Those who walked through an urban environment didn’t enjoy these benefits.
These researchers indicate that our world is becoming more and more urban and that urbanization is linked to depression and other forms of mental illness. Visibly, simply removing us from an urban environment to spend time outdoors where there are fewer mental stressors, less noise, and fewer distractions can be advantageous for our mental health. (Gregory N. Bratman, 2019)
Hiking While Disconnecting from Technology Boosts Creative Problem Solving
According to a study by Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer, creative problem solving can be improved by disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. In this study, participants hiked while backpacking in nature for approximately four days and they were prohibited from using technology. They were asked to perform tasks requiring creativity and complex problem solving. They found that those immersed in the hiking excursions had increased performance on problem-solving tasks by 50 percent.
Researchers indicate that technology and the noise of urban areas constantly demand our attention and disturb us from focusing, which taxes our cognitive functions. Thus, when we’re feeling overwhelmed from the stressors of urban life and being plugged-in 24/7, nature hikes can be strong medicine. They reduce our mental fatigue, soothe our minds, and help us think creatively. (Atchley RA, 2012)
Hiking Outdoors Can Improve ADHD in Children
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder among children. Those with ADHD generally have trouble staying focused, are easily distracted, exhibit hyperactivity, and have difficulty controlling impulses.
Raising children with ADHD can be perplexing for parents. Nonetheless, great news has emerged from the medical and scientific world. In a study conducted by Frances E. Kuo, PhD and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, researchers found that exposing children with ADHD to “green outdoor activities” reduced their ADHD symptoms. Thus, according to this study, the benefits of exposure to nature can extend to anyone with inattention and impulsivity.
Doctors conclude that simple changes that involve green activities or settings can improve attention. For example, increasing exposure to a window seat with a green view, participating in an afternoon nature hike, or simply playing ball in the park can ease unwanted ADHD symptoms. (Frances E. Kuo, 2019)
Hiking in Nature is Great Exercise, Which Boosts Brainpower
We’ve all heard the expression healthy body, healthy mind. Hiking outdoors is an excellent form of exercise and it can burn 400 to 700 calories an hour, depending on the difficulty of the hike. An added benefit is that hiking isn’t as hard on our joints as other forms of exercise, such as running. Also, it’s proven that those who exercise outside are more likely to stick to their exercise programs, which makes hiking an excellent choice for those hoping to integrate exercise into their daily lives.
The mind and body are naturally connected. Exercise helps to keep our brain cells nourished and healthy. In fact, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia, aerobic exercise might improve memory and cognitive ability. In the study, they found that aerobic exercise increased the hippocampal volume in older women. The hippocampus is a part of brain associated with spatial and episodic memory.
Not only does exercise improve cognitive ability and possibly prevent cognitive decline as shown by the study, it can also reduce stress and anxiety, boost self-esteem, and release endorphins (feel-good hormones). It’s astonishing that a physical activity as simple and low-cost as hiking can provide so many mental health benefits. (Lisanne F ten Brinke, 2019)
Hiking is Now Prescribed by Doctors
Has your doctor ever told you to “take a hike?” This isn’t a phrase that we typically want to hear, especially from our doctors, but they actually have our wellbeing in mind. Progressive doctors are now aware that people who spend time in nature enjoy less stress and better physical health.
According to WebMD, more and more doctors are writing “nature prescriptions” or recommending “ecotherapy” to reduce anxiety, improve stress levels, and to curb depression. Plus, nature prescriptions are becoming more accepted by traditional health care providers as more research shows the benefits of exercising and spending time in nature.
The state of California is traditionally one of the more progressive states in the area of alternative health. As an example, the Institute at the Golden Gate has been leading the charge to promote ecotherapy through its “Healthy Parks Healthy People (HPHP)” initiative. In this program, community organizations work with health professionals to improve the health of their parks, and to promote the use of parks as a passageway to health for the people who use them. (Sorgen, 2019)
Hiking Makes You Happier
Research shows that using hiking as an additional therapy can help people with severe depression feel less hopeless, depressed and suicidal. It may even inspire those suffering from it to lead a more active lifestyle.
For those who don’t suffer from depression, hiking still offers mental benefits. “Being out in nature, away from the business of our daily lives and technology, can allow people to connect with themselves and nature in a way that brings about peace and a sense of well-being,” states Leigh Jackson-Magennis, REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach New England Market Manager. (Sturm J, 2012) (Neunhäuserer D, 2019)
Some research suggests that the physical benefits of hiking extend far beyond cardiovascular health, and may even go as far as to help cancer patients recover. In a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine researchers measured oxidative stress (thought to play a role in the onset, progression and recurrence of cancer) rates of women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer before and after hiking. The study found that long distance hiking trips may improve the antioxidative capacity, which helps fight off disease, in the blood of oncological patients. Another study showed that breast cancer survivors who exercised regularly — many in the form of hiking — believed that physical activity complemented their recovery from cancer treatment. (Knop, 2019)
Hiking May Help PTSD in Veterans
A new University of Washington study aims to test the benefits of wilderness hiking among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. This comes as REI pledges $1 million to fund a new health and nature initiative at the university’s College of the Environment. In an article published by REI it outlines research efforts to advance understanding of how time spent in nature improves well-being, REI is pledging $1 million to support the launch of a new initiative within the University of Washington’s EarthLab that will study the link between human health and time spent outdoors.
The new initiative, Nature for Health, builds on existing bodies of work and has grown out of years of collaboration and conversation among university researchers and leaders in the outdoor, nonprofit and governmental communities. Within the health and nature initiative, veterans will be key partners. (O’Brien, 2019)
- Atchley RA, S. D. (2012, 07). Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. Retrieved from PLoS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
- Frances E. Kuo, P. a. (2019, 07 15). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. Retrieved from US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/
- Gregory N. Bratman, J. P. (2019, 07 15). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Retrieved from Preceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: https://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567
- Knop, K. (2019, 07 15). Sport and oxidative stress in oncological patients. Retrieved from US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22095321
- Lisanne F ten Brinke, N. B.-K.-A. (2019, 07 15). Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. Retrieved from British Journal of Sports Medicine: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/4/248.abstract?sid=ecff0a48-d4fd-4a9d-b34a-156ca915a79e
- Neunhäuserer D, S. J.-K. (2019, 07 15). Hiking in suicidal patients: neutral effects on markers of suicidality. Retrieved from US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23953873
- O’Brien, S. (2019, 07 15). Can Hiking Help Heal Veterans with PTSD? Researchers Seek to Find Out. Retrieved from REI Co-Op: https://www.rei.com/blog/hike/can-hiking-help-heal-veterans-with-ptsd-researchers-seek-to-find-out
- Sorgen, C. (2019, 07 15). Do You Need a Nature Prescription? Retrieved from WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/nature-therapy-ecotherapy#1
- Sturm J, P. M. (2012, 07 15). Physical exercise through mountain hiking in high-risk suicide patients. A randomized crossover trial. Retrieved from US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22486584