We’re probably all aware that we just “feel better” when we head out into nature for a hike, but it’s no longer just anecdotal. An ever-increasing body of scientific studies is demonstrating the multitude of ways in which walking in nature is indeed awesome for our heads.
Years ago, I did my own ‘research’, embarking (with full blown anxiety and depression) on the Te Araroa Trail, a 3,000km hike down the length of New Zealand. Within a few weeks my long-suffered symptoms began to melt away. By the time the 5-month adventure came to an end, I had, to some extent, rewired my brain. I felt calmer, more confident, courageous and resilient, and I used that clarity and confidence to reinvent my life on my return.
Two hours a week is the minimum required for good health and mental wellbeing - according to a 2020 study by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health - but the longer the better. So get out there!
Exercise – a natural high
Get the heart pumping while out on a trail and your body will release endorphins, feel-good chemicals that interact with receptors in your brain to reduce your perception of pain (like painkillers). These endorphins have been likened by researchers to a euphoric shot of morphine, but without any of the negative side effects like addiction and dependence. The bottom line is reduced stress and an ability to ward off anxiety and feelings of depression. And if you’re one of those anxiety sufferers who has a tendency to shallow breathe, try doing that while climbing a mountain! It’s impossible.
Easy on the eye
If a simple pot plant in a hospital room or office can be proven to have a significant impact on stress and anxiety, imagine what an entire forest can do! Studies have shown that hospital patients who have a view of trees heal quicker and tolerate pain far better than those who have a view of a brick wall. We are genetically programmed to find natural scenes (trees, water, plants, etc) engaging so surrounding yourself in nature on a hike is a great mood enhancer.
Meditation made easy
The benefits of meditation are widely known, employing the practise of attention and awareness to achieve mental stability and calm. Doing it cross-legged in a room can be a challenge for many but hiking can achieve the same effect. When your mind is engaged in the task of working out a route over rocky terrain, or marvelling at the rough bark of a tree, or tuning in to the sound of a creek burbling nearby, it’s not thinking about anything else. This is mindfulness and ‘being present’ at its easiest. If you have trouble emptying your head, try listening to music for a stint to get the mind focussed on just one thing before pulling away the ‘training wheels’ and losing yourself fully to your environment.
Creative thinking and epiphanies
Have you ever noticed how solutions to problems can suddenly surface in your mind when you go for a walk? It’s in part helped by the fact that walking appears to switch off activity in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex (whose duties include thinking ‘sensibly’), and while it’s having a little snooze, creative “outside the square” thinking can bloom.
Then there’s the fact that hiking takes you away from everything and everyone that might be feeding you ideas on how to think or what to do – friends, family, media, advertising – leaving a blank void for you to find your own answers from within.
Boost brain function and creativity
The brain and body are connected. It has been scientifically demonstrated that when we exercise, the brain responds by physically upping its capacity - creating new connections, more blood vessels, more blood and more brain cells. That extra oomph gives you a real pep in your step that you can carry through life, post-hike. In addition, loading your bones with weight stimulates the release of another beneficial hormone called osteocalcin. All this adds up to improved memory, mood and concentration, and reduced anxiety and stress.
Confidence and self-esteem
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but you don’t need to go that extreme to get the benefit of facing your fears while hiking on a trail. Often we can be quick to fret over the unknown ahead of us - or even the hazards we know we will face - but for every challenge we overcome, our confidence and trust in ourselves grows. And having trust and confidence in our ability takes a whole lot of stress out of life in general.
Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to a whole host of health issues including anxiety and depression. We’re social creatures and hiking gives us an excuse to have a shared experience with others and strengthen bonds. Even if you’re walking alone, tuning into nature has the potential to let you feel part of something much bigger than yourself (leaving you less likely to feel lonely). Which brings us to…
Out on the trail, you may recognise that our human-made stories matter very little when compared against the vast scheme of galaxies and planets that we’re part of; you’ll understand that we are just one more animal amid the complex web of life around us.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get consumed by life’s challenges and feel weighed down, but hiking in nature gives you a chance to literally step back and see the bigger picture. Stand on top of a mountain or soak up a view across a still lake and suddenly office politics or the growing to-do list don’t seem so important anymore. It’s called perspective and getting it in nature is like getting a big hug from a wise old grandmother. And who doesn’t love that?
Laura Waters is author of award-winning memoir “Bewildered”, about hiking 3,000km down the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa Trail.