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The Great Outdoors: How Hiking Improves Wellness

The Great Outdoors: How Hiking Improves Wellness
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Curious just how hiking improves wellness? Hiking is a healthy hobby enjoyed by people all over the globe, and there are quite a few famous hiking trails throughout the world.

There’s the well-known Pacific Crest Trail spanning 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through Washington, Oregon and California. Many hike the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Spanish network of pilgrimage routes, for spiritual fulfillment. Then there’s the 40-mile Everest Base Camp Trek in Nepal. The Inca Trail. The Appalachian Trail. And the list goes on!

Then there are the countless hiking trails and nature paths that can be found just about anywhere. If you’re a city-dweller, you might need to drive a little longer to get to these spots, but once you get there, a hike in the great outdoors can offer some serious mind, body and soul benefits.

5 Ways Hiking Can Improve Your Mental and Physical Well-Being

1. It’s Great for Stress and Anxiety

If you’re looking for ways to naturally ease stress and anxiety, getting out into the great outdoors could be just what you need. While walking has some serious mental health benefits of its own, where you walk has been shown to increase the advantages.

In a 2015 Stanford University study, researchers looked at whether or not a walk in nature would impact rumination (repetitive thoughts focused on negative emotion), which is a known risk factor for mental illness.

mountain hiking improves wellness

They found that participants who went on a 90-minute walk in a natural environment (the great outdoors) reported lower levels of rumination than participants who walked 90 minutes in an urban setting. Nature walkers also showed decreased neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in both depressed and healthy individuals.

The study also highlighted that more than 50% of people now live in urban areas, with this increasing to 70% of the population by 2050. Other research has shown that, compared to people living in rural areas, those who live in the city have a 20% higher risk of developing anxiety and a 40% higher risk of various mood disorders.

When American naturalist and nature essayist John Burroughs said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order,” it turns out he was on to something. Anyone who has taken a walk in nature knows just how soothing to the soul it can truly be.

According to James Gross, Stanford psychology professor and co-author of the study, “These findings are important because they are consistent with, but do not prove, a causal link between increasing urbanization and increased rates of mental illness.”

Lead author Gregory Bratman says the finding is exciting because it “demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation — something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better.”

2. Hiking Can Help Improve Physical Health

Hiking is one of the best activities you can do to improve your physical health. Hiking has shown to control and possibly prevent diabetes by decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol.

Getting to the top of that steep incline and heading back down is even better. Research shows that hiking downhill is twice as effective as uphill for improving glucose tolerance and removing blood sugars.

3. It’s an Awesome Workout

It’s no secret that hiking is a great way to get a workout. Did you know that hiking can burn over 500 calories in just an hour, depending on incline levels and how much you’re carrying in your pack? If you want to get in shape, getting into the great outdoors and taking a hike packs in a ton of health benefits.

hiking in the snow

Walking is a great way to help increase physical strength and lose weight, but hiking takes walking to another level entirely. Hiking typically involves steep inclines and varied terrain, requiring hikers to use their whole body.

Hiking can lead to some serious toning in your lower body, including your quads, hamstrings and glutes. If you carry a pack it can increase upper body strength as well — add in a set of poles and you’re going to tone and firm your arms! Hiking is also excellent for increasing balance and coordination. Compared to running or jogging through city streets, hiking trails are also much easier on the joints, which can save sore knees and ankles.

4. It Can Boost Creativity

You may be surprised to learn that hiking can increase creativity. Research has discovered that spending time in the great outdoors can boost creative problem-solving skills and attention spans as much as 50%. The next time you’re feeling sluggish and in a creative slump, one of the best things you can do is take a hike outside.

According to the authors of the study, “results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting.”

They indicate that increased attention spans and creative problem-solving are linked not only to increased exposure to the natural world but also to decreased exposure to “attention-demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks and maintain task goals.”

As it turns out, walking in general is good for the creative process. Other research from Stanford University found creative thinking increases when a person is walking, as well as shortly after the walk is complete.

“Many people anecdotally claim that they do their best thinking when walking,” said the study’s authors. “We finally may be taking a step, or two, towards discovering why.”

It was discovered that a large majority of the participants in the study were more creative when walking than when sitting down. One of the experiments found that the creative output was enhanced by 60% when participants walked on a treadmill compared to sitting down. This was just indoors. Imagine what taking a walk in the great outdoors could do to boost creativity!

5. It Brings You Closer to Nature

When it comes down to it, spending any time in nature is extremely good for your physical and psychological health. In a 2018 study, proof was found that living close to nature and spending time outside has “significant and wide-reaching health benefits.”

Whether you live in New York City or deep in the mountains of Colorado, you know that spending time in nature just feels good. Researchers of this recent study set out to find why.

hiking in the forest

Evidence was gathered from over 140 studies that involved more than 290 million people all over the world. The health of those exposed to small and large amounts of time spent in “greenspaces” (open undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban greenspaces like parks or nature trails) was analyzed in detail.

According to researchers of the study, “We found that spending time in or living close to natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.”

Authors also noted that “people living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress.”

It makes sense when you consider just how cut off we’ve become from the natural world. We’re an intricate part of the ecosystem, even though the modern lifestyles of many might lead you to believe otherwise. Getting outside and immersing yourself in nature is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being.

Essential Tips for Beginner Hikers

Ready to get outside and experience all the benefits hiking has to offer? Hiking once or twice a week could seriously change your life. If you’re new to hiking, here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Don’t Overdo It: When you first start hiking, ease into it. One of the biggest mistakes new hikers make is going big before they’re ready. If you’re new to hiking, climbing to the top of a mountain for your first hike probably isn’t the best idea. For your first few hikes, pick a trail under five miles with a low-grade incline.
  • Get Familiarized With the Trail: Once you’ve found a trail you want to hike, familiarize yourself with it before you actually hike it. There are countless resources online. Rather than relying on your smartphone (service could be spotty or completely nonexistent on your hike), print out a map to take with you and study it before you hit the trail.
  • Check the Weather Forecast: When on a hike, weather can be unpredictable. Be sure to check the weather forecast the day of your hike. You’ll want to know what to wear and if you need any additional gear. If the weather forecast calls for bad weather, you can always make plans to hike another day.
  • Wear the Right Gear: Hiking calls for proper apparel. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by purchasing good hiking boots and socks. As far as clothes are concerned, invest in attire made from synthetic material (as opposed to cotton) that will help wick moisture away and keep you from becoming cold and clammy. Be sure to layer your clothing so you can adapt accordingly to any changing weather.
  • Pack Light, but Pack Right: You’ll want to bring a pack as there are a few basics you’ll need to bring on your hike. Water, food, a first-aid kit and your map are fundamental. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must. Prepare for the unexpected by packing emergency supplies and a basic first-aid kit.
  • Tell Someone Where You Are: Even if you’re hiking with a friend, it’s important to tell someone who’s not on the hike where you are. Let them know what time you expect to be done and when they should begin to worry if they don’t hear from you. Give yourself a time cushion, though. If you think you’ll be done hiking at noon, let your worry time be at least a few hours later. This allows for a window in case the hike took longer than expected and prevents any unnecessary calls to search and rescue.
  • Respect the Natural Environment You’re In: One of the most important tips for new and seasoned hikers alike is to respect the natural environment that they’re in. When you get out and enjoy the great outdoors, it’s your responsibility to know the proper hiking etiquette and how important it is to leave as little of an impact on the natural environment as possible. For more information on responsibly enjoying the great outdoors, click here.

Now you have ideas for how hiking improves wellness. Get out there and take a hike! Your mind and body will thank you for it.

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