We’re really fortunate here in America to have an abundance of wildlands, national parks, designated natural areas, preserves, wilderness areas and other lands specifically set aside for recreational enjoyment. It makes it a lot easier to get away from it all when doing so means a quick trip to a local trail that can be easily found using the wonders of the Internet. Maybe that’s why doctors are actually starting to prescribe hiking as the newest mental health booster.
Ecotherapy, as it’s been termed, is the latest, greatest development in addressing a plethora of mental-health issues. Experts agree that exercise is the most underutilized anti-depressant available. Underutilized because we justify the ease of popping a pill versus the complexity of going to the gym or for a run or otherwise working out. That being said…we really need to get more exercise. Americans watch five hours of TV every day according to a 2014 NIelsen report…so the “I don’t have time to exercise” excuse is utter nonsense. That being said, doing something that is fun and easy will always triumph over doing something that is complicated and difficult. Popping some Prozac and watching TV seems like the softer, easier way over going to the gym and working out. But at what price are we exacting this “luxury”?
Enter hiking. Hiking is fun and easy: once you get yourself out the door and onto the trailhead it’s really difficult to justify not doing it. Additionally, there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back up hiking as one of the best things we can do for our mental health. Such as:
Hiking decreases rumination, or the time spent on negative thinking.
This particular study showed the incredible effects of hiking on the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is where negative and obsessive thoughts get spinning and take over our brains. Study participants “reported lower levels of rumination and also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with mental illness. Those who walked through an urban environment didn’t enjoy these benefits,” according to this report. This indicates that our world is growing increasingly urban and therefore increasingly depressive. Hiking in nature removes the stressors of the urban environment, therefore reducing stress and anxiety.
Hiking increases creative thinking when disconnected from technology.
If you’re taking a hike leave your smartphone behind: this study showed that hikers who hiked for several days cutoff from technology performed creative thinking and cognitive reasoning tasks 50% better than a control group. The idea behind this is that tech creates constant distraction and decreases our abilities to focus on a single task, and our urbanized world contributes to this. Unplugging can help us find our focus again.
Hiking reduces ADHD symptoms in children.
For parents dealing with kids who have ADHD, hiking might be the magic bullet. In this study, kids who spent time outdoors experienced fewer and less intense ADHD symptoms than kids who didn’t. The correlation between “green spaces” and the kids’ functionality is almost irrefutable.
Hiking increases brainpower.
Exercise is a huge brain-power booster, as shown in this study in particular as well as countless others. Aerobic exercise specifically increases hippocampal volume, which is the area of the brain devoted to memory.
Hiking is so incredibly effective as a treatment for mental health issues that it is actually now prescribed by doctors.
So if yours tells you to take a hike, take it to heart and hit the trail. Your best life is out there waiting for you!
That “fresh air smell” isn’t just a phenomenon created by humans; it’s actually better for us to breathe fresh air.
SciShow does an amazing job of explaining the how and why behind that amazing smell, as well as the truth behind its important to our lives as functional human beings.
If you’re having trouble getting started or finding a trail in your area, this is one great resource I’m particularly fond of. Now get out there and get hiking!