Five Ways Hiking Is Good For You
At first glance, hiking is a terrific way to see nature and be healthy. But there’s more than meets the eye. The experience of hiking is unique, with benefits beyond what you receive from typical exercise. Here are 5 ways hiking is good for you ...
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.
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 sharper than many other forms of exercise
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 author Daniel Levitin explains in '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 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 helps your relationships
It may be obvious that hiking is good for our physical 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.
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. 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.
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.
4. Hiking can increase our creativity
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.
Young adults in an Outward Bound program were tested 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.
5. Hiking helps cement a positive relationship with the natural world
Besides being good for us, hiking may also help the world around us. After all, if we have the stamina to walk places and cover longer distances, we could use cars less and reduce our carbon footprint.
Beyond that, hiking benefits our planet indirectly, because it increases our connection to nature. Developing a positive relationship with the natural world can help us to care about its fate, making us more committed to conservation efforts. At least one study has suggested that when we have a personal connection to nature, we are more likely to want to protect it. That means experiences in nature—like hiking—can be mutually beneficial, helping people and the earth.
By Jill Suttie, Psy.D.
Greater Good Magazine