I’m a hiker—“born to hike,” as my husband likes to joke. It does my heart and soul good to strap on a pack and head out on a trail, especially when I’m alone and can let my mind wander where it will.
The experience of hiking is unique, research suggests, conveying benefits beyond what you receive from typical exercise. Not only does it oxygenate your heart, it helps keep your mind sharper, your body calmer, your creativity more alive, and your relationships happier. And, if you’re like me and happen to live in a place where nearby woods allow for hiking among trees, all the better: Evidence suggests that being around trees may provide extra benefits, perhaps because of certain organic compounds that trees exude that boost our mood and our overall psychological well-being.
Hiking in nature is so powerful for our health and well-being that some doctors have begun prescribing it as an adjunct to other treatments for disease. As one group of researchers puts it, “The synergistic effect of physical activity and time spent in nature make hiking an ideal activity to increase overall health and wellness.”
Here is what science is saying about the benefits of hiking.
1. Hiking keeps your mind sharp
Being a professional writer, I sometimes have trouble justifying taking the time to hike in the middle of my workday. But research suggests that hiking doesn’t just feel good, it might also keep my brain in top shape.
All exercise is good for us. Whether it’s using an elliptical trainer, riding a stationary bike, or walking on a treadmill, getting your heart rate up and working out your lungs keep you feeling younger and stronger. Exercise also helps your brain thanks to the extra oxygenation that comes with it.
But hiking involves something many other forms of exercise don’t: trails. That means it requires navigating in a world that’s not totally predictable. Slippery dirt, overhanging branches and hidden obstacles, trail markers, and wild animals crossing your path—all of the things you might encounter on a trail require micro- and macro-adjustments to your route, which is good for your brain.
As Daniel Levitin explains in his book, Successful Aging, hiking exercises the part of your brain designed to help you navigate through life—for example, the restrosplenial cortex and the hippocampus, which aids in memory, too—which is why hiking not only helps your heart, but helps your mind stay sharp, as well.
2. Hiking helps to keep you calm and happy
Exercise in general can be a great stress-buster. But what sets hiking apart from other forms of exercise is that it’s done outdoors in a natural setting. While other physical activities also rely on nature—for example, river rafting or backpacking—those often require more time and commitment than a simple hike and are less accessible to many people. Hiking can happen almost anywhere—from a city park or public garden to a mountain trail—and give you that dose of nature you need to stay happy.
Research is quite clear on the benefits of being in nature while exercising. Studies have found that, compared to walking in a cityscape or along a road, walking in green spaces helps us recover from “attention overload”—the mental fatigue that comes from living and working in a world where computers and cell phones are a constant distraction.
Being in nature is calming, too, and studies have found that people who spend time walking in nature are less anxious and suffer less rumination (thinking about the same worries or regrets over and over again), which should help protect against depression.
While it’s not totally clear why nature provides these psychological perks, researcher Craig Anderson and others have found that being in nature encourages feelings of awe—a state of wonder coupled with a sense of being small in the presence of something bigger than yourself. Awe is a powerful emotion that has many benefits, including improving your mood and making you feel more generous.
3. Hiking can increase our creativity
I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that walks in nature let my mind wander freely in creative directions. In fact, I’ve written many of my songs while hiking on a trail, lyric ideas bubbling up from some unconscious place when I’m not deliberately thinking.
Though we often read about philosophers or artists who’ve found creative inspiration in natural spaces, science is just beginning to document the connections between being in nature and creativity. David Strayer and his colleagues tested young adults in an Outward Bound program before and after they spent three days hiking in wilderness, and the participants showed increased creative thinking and problem-solving after the experience. Other studies have found connections between creative thinking and nature experiences, too, although they weren’t focused on hiking specifically.
Some scholars believe that these benefits for creativity have to do with how natural settings allow our attention to soften and our minds to wander in ways that can help us connect disparate ideas that are swirling around in our minds. Others suggest that the spaciousness and unpredictability in natural scenery somehow enhance creativity. Whatever the case, if being in nature increases creativity—which is tied to well-being—it might behoove creative types to spend a little more time on a trail.
4. Hiking helps your relationships
It may be obvious that hiking is good for our physical, cognitive and emotional health. But there is mounting evidence that it helps our relationships, too.
One reason is that many of us hike with other people, and exercising together can produce special feelings of closeness—and a sense of safety. I’m sure when a friend of mine recently fell on a trail and severely fractured her ankle, she was glad to have company to help her hobble down the mountain for help. But, even in less dire circumstances, having a friend along can be a lovely way to connect with another person in a setting free of other distractions.
In one study, mothers and daughters who spent 20 minutes walking in an arboretum (versus a shopping mall) not only showed better attention during a cognitive task, but also had improved interactions with each other, according to independent raters. Specifically, they demonstrated more connection and positive emotions and fewer negative emotions after walking in the natural setting. Other research suggests that exposure to nature can help our relationships by making us more empathic, helpful, and generous.
What about hiking alone? Personally, I’ve often found that hiking alone helps me in my relationships, likely for all of the reasons above—it helps me reduce my stress, refreshes my depleted attention, and produces awe. And, when I’m feeling good, those effects spill over into my interactions with others once I return from the hike.
For anyone who spends a lot of time caregiving for other people, it can be rejuvenating to let go of that responsibility for a bit and take to a trail. After all, it can’t help but refresh you when you give yourself a break, making you more emotionally available to others afterward.
This all goes to show that hiking may be one of the best ways to move your body, and I, personally, have recommitted to hiking regularly in the new year. Instead of spending all day every day in front of a computer, I’m taking time to walk outside—even if it’s just for 15 minutes. And I’m definitely noticing improvements in my mood, creativity, and relationships, as well as a growing sense of spiritual connection to the natural world.
So, grab a water bottle, a backpack, and, if you want, a friend, and head out on the trail. You won’t be sorry you did.
— Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.