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6 surprising ways hiking can improve your mental health

It’s curious how well-versed we are in the physical benefits of hiking. The activity can:

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Reduce your risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure. (Hiking regularly has been shown to lower blood pressure by 4 to 10 points.)
  • Reduce the incidence of diabetes.
  • Help you lose weight. An adult, on average, burns 200 to 250 calories per hour hiking at a rate of 2.5 miles per hour. The number of calories doubles if you bump the pace to 4.5 miles per hour.

These physical benefits alone are reason enough to make you want to hike five miles a day.

But then consider that hiking may have an even more profound impact on your mental well-being. Why would you ever come off the trail? Among those mental and emotional benefits:

1. Reduces anxiety

The American Hiking Society says your body produces adrenaline to cope with danger, real or perceived. If the adrenaline isn’t released, it accumulates, causing muscle tension and anxiety. Hiking is an accessible way of releasing that adrenaline. (Much more accessible than, say, to rock climbing or running an ultra marathon). Hiking also releases endorphins, which can improve mood.

2. Reduces the tendency to ruminate

Along similar lines, a 2015 study at Stanford University found that people who walked in a natural setting for 90 minutes were less likely to dwell on negative thoughts about themselves. (FYI, a group that walked 90 minutes in an urban setting still had negative thoughts.)

3. Improves creative problem solving

In another study, walking in nature and disconnecting from technology was found to improve creative problem-solving abilities by 50%.

In this case, participants spent four days backpacking without their phones. Detached from the constant distractions of a wired society, their brains were free to focus on the task at hand.

4. Reduces symptoms of ADHD

In a study examining the impact of “green” activities on kids diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, “green outdoor activities reduced symptoms significantly more than did activities conducted in other settings.” The results were consistent along demographic lines.

5. Prevents dementia and cognitive impairment

Another study on how hiking affects your brain found that exercise can prevent or slow dementia. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Joyce Gomes-Osman, told Healthline, “It’s direct evidence that exercise can turn back the clock in the brain.”

6. Curtails the loss of gray matter

After 40, we begin to lose brain matter–especially gray matter, which helps us process information. But exercise “can grow and promote gray matter retention and thickness in important regions of the brain,” says Dr. Sarah C. McEwen.

While any type of exercise might seem to help with these conditions, hiking has an added benefit. Outdoors, on the trail, you’re in an environment that McEwen says forces you “to use spatial navigation, your memory, and your attention” with every step.

In addition to being so good for you, we should mention one other thing about hiking: It’s fun.

[Music]

Physical benefits to walking and hiking are fairly obvious to people but most  people don't recognize that there's mental health benefits. Walking just in itself has shown to reduce levels of anxiety and depression and actually can be preventative in some cases of depression. But there's even more evidence now that's doing it in nature and natural surroundings improves that those results even further. Something about being in nature is calming to to humans.

We seek environments that seem calming and protective to us and so people they've actually started to show that people's brains work differently when they're in nature compared to when they're in an urban setting. So it's  thought that being or in a natural setting can change the way that we think  and that affects our emotions and it reduces our anxiety levels and our stress levels.

When you're in nature there's a thought that different parts of your brain are are activating the parts that are related to being on edge they're being calmed down and so that leads to physical changes too so reductions in your blood pressure reductions in your heart rate. And again it's calming those areas of your brain that are related to stress and anxiety. You certainly you do not have to go climb a mountain to get the mental health benefits of hiking. Going to a  park going to a green space any amount of time that you can spend outside in  nature in an environment that is comfortable to you is worth it. Even if it's just ten minutes on your lunch break, getting outside stretching your legs you know seeing the sunshine all of those things can be helpful for people.

You know mental health benefits can impact anyone. It doesn't have to be someone who's depressed or anxious at baseline that's gonna get benefits from this. It's anyone on any given day who's who's, you know, a little bit stressed out, maybe they've  got a deadline coming up. You're gonna get that benefit from getting out in the  nature even just for a little bit amount of time.

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Joe Miller

Joe Miller

Joe Miller is the author of four books on outdoor adventure, and writes about health, fitness and the outdoors. Read his blog at GetGoingNC.com.

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