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Four ways hiking promotes cognitive and emotional health

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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.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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