How to Use Hiking to Improve your Physical and Mental Fitness

October 1, 2015

Hiking is undeniably a great workout: your lower body is moving, your heart is pumping, and if you’re carrying a pack, your back is working on its fitness as well. Even if your hike is little more than a light walk, you’re still getting in some movement, which is a daily necessity. But what you might not be aware of is that while your muscles are working, your brain is also reaping the benefits of a good hike. It’s not just the exercise component – studies have shown that getting out in nature has untold benefits for mental health.

Let’s take a look at how hiking can be just as good a mental workout as it is a workout for your body:hiking

Outdoor Therapy

If you’re an outdoorsy person, you’re aware of the calming effect that nature has on a person. It’s a place to recharge and focus on the beauty surrounding you, rather than quick flashes of things that are happening on screens. In today’s world full of email notifications and text messages flashing and websites to check, people are becoming more and more inured to dealing with multiple high-tech stimuli coming at them at once. If you’ve ever tried to fall asleep but it feels like you can’t turn your brain off, you might be too immersed in technology.

It turns out that a prescription to the great outdoors is just what many of us might be missing. According to Sci-Tech Today, a new study suggests that a 90-minute walk in nature may help fight depression. The researchers specifically focused on what’s referred to as “rumination,” which has to do with those pesky thoughts of anxiety and self-doubt that can plague us. To test the idea that nature is a good distraction from ruminative thoughts, researchers put a group of subjects out in nature to walk for 90 minutes, and another group of subjects to walk in urban areas for the same amount of time.

Says the article: “When the 90 minutes were up, the volunteers were brought back to the lab, where they completed the rumination questionnaire again and had another brain scan... The researchers found that those who went on the nature walk showed reductions in both self-reported rumination and in the profusion of blood flow to the subgenual prefontal cortex. They observed no significant changes in the urban walkers.”

The Guardian has a way to explain this divide between country and city exercise – they refer to it as “ecotherapy,” and posit that being immersed in nature has a calming effect because it reminds an individual that they’re a small speck in the wider universe, and that their worries aren’t so big after all. “The egocentricity of clients is often reduced by awareness of something much bigger than them, whether it be mountains, wide open plains or huge skies,” says the author. “The feeling that the client is the centre of the universe is called into question by the sheer scale and complexity of nature.” In other words, there’s nothing like gazing up at mountains that have existed for millennia to really put that full inbox into perspective.

Work It Off

Although simply existing in the natural world is a big help to mental health, you can get a double dose of brain exercise by moving at a good pace. This is why hiking is such a great solution for working on one’s mental fitness – it puts you outdoors (where ecotherapy can help calm your brain) and it gives you the benefits of a physical workout. Participaction notes that physical exercise is “critical” to improving emotional health, citing its positive influence on anxiety and depression. Who hasn’t been told that taking a walk is a good solution to a bad mood?

Plus, the additional benefits of getting a physical workout can’t be denied – it can help you sleep better, look better, and feel better about yourself in general. All of these things add up to a heightened sense of self-esteem. Combine that with the sense of accomplishment you can get when you conquer a trail or discover a hidden out-of-the-way path, and hiking might just be one of the best ways to beat the blues.

Conclusion

When you lace up your boots, head outdoors and hit the trail, you’re not only giving your body a good workout, but you’re also putting your mind at ease through both wilderness therapy and exercise. These combined benefits are a fantastic solution to all the stress that can build up, and if it becomes a regular habit, hiking can be a balm to an overloaded brain. Next time you’re feeling sluggish and overwhelmed, try going for a hike – you may be surprised at how refreshed you feel afterward, both physically and mentally.

How has hiking helped your mental happiness as well as your physical fitness? Let us know in the comments!