Let Thy Trail Be Thy Medicine

At this point, we’re all aware that there are benefits of being in nature, of spending time in a restorative natural environment. The mental benefits of exercise have also become common knowledge, with prescriptions for activity tagging alongside pharmaceutical prescriptions.  Getting active and getting outdoors in general has become a priority for many, with hiking increasing exponentially in its popularity. 

QUOTE: More and more people are hitting the trails in the past few years. In the United States in 2017, 44.9 million people reported hiking. That’s 30 million more than in 2006!

While many people hike for the enjoyment or the physical exercise of it, lacing up your boots and heading into the mountains or woods is proving to have many mental health benefits. 

These benefits affect all ages and people of all backgrounds. Whether you are somebody with tip top health looking for a creativity boost, a child with ADHD or somebody struggling with a mental disorder, research is pouring in that getting your boots dirty can benefit everybody.

Hiking, along with other forms of exercise, induces neurogenesis which is the production of new nervous system cells, neurons. Exercises appears to especially spark this process in the hippocampus which is the primary brain area responsible for learning and memory. 

QUOTE: Essentially we are birthing new cells in our brain that can allow us to have new insights and new perceptions during this time. 

Not only have studies found that new neurons are born in this region during a hike, a study done in the University of British Columbia found that subject’s hippocampus grew bigger as a result of brisk walks in nature. All this growth and cell production contributes to creativity, as well as gives a boost to our memory and learning abilities. 

It’s important to note how the benefits of exercise alone rate in relation to exercise in nature. Multiple studies looked at how being outdoors compared to being outdoors specifically in natural/green spaces. 

  • One study examined how the benefits of walking around a city compared to walking amongst trees. The data found that those participants who walked amongst the trees had an increase of 20% on a memory test, as opposed to hardly a change in the city walkers. 
  • Another study found small, but meaningful improvements in mental health of people walking along quiet, tree-lined streets rather than busy city streets. These studies show us the role nature has in boosting our mental capabilities. While exercise itself stimulates overall health, being in nature brings us into an entire new field of well-being.

Nature’s effect on concentration and memory continues as we look at what happens when children with ADHD take a brief walk outside. 

Researchers have found that their ability to concentrate increases significantly even after as little as 20 minutes. This appears to be due to the brain using different areas to think when we are outdoors compared to being indoors. This occurrence is called transient hypofrontality and also happens to us in states of “flow.” 

QUOTE: When this happens we gain access to parts of our brains and ourselves that we do not have on a regular basis. These are the moments where we find ourselves coming up with new ideas and having new inspirations exude from deep within ourselves. When we step in nature and quite literally step into new thinking patterns, we enter a new realm of our minds to explore.

 As we can see, our inner landscapes open up to us as we explore our outer environments. 

Effortlessly and almost entirely unconsciously, we are exploring inside as a result of our outdoor adventures. One of the key attractions of hiking and trekking is the idea of exploring our outdoor world. 

Turns out that exploring isn’t only appealing to the mind, but it also helps these new nerve cells that we’ve learned are being created. The exploring aspect that occurs enhances what the benefits of exercise on a hike. It helps these new nerve cells “to be consolidated into the functional circuit within your brain so they can start being used.” 

Extra encouragement to get off the path and into the true wilderness next time!

On a chemical level, being in nature helps us reduce stress due to the antibacterial chemicals released by the trees and plants in the environment. These chemicals, phytoncides, have shown to significantly decrease stress and lower cortisol levels. Further than lowering stress, spending time in the woods increases energy levels and boosts the immune system. 

The Japanese having knowledge of the healing powers of the woods for ages, where “forest bathing” shinrin yoku has long been and continues to be a popular practice. Of course, we can’t forget about the feel-good endorphins that are bound to get released during a hike. These neurochemicals induce a sense of euphoria alongside decreasing our sensitivity to stress and pain. 

Releasing endorphins, generating new nerve cells and stepping outside your normal thinking patterns all from just taking a walk outside. 

QUOTE: When we go outdoors we actually change our brain. 

We have the potential to receive up to a 50% creativity boost and open up to new perspectives. The mind releases feel-good chemicals that help balance mood, as well as increase positive feelings and energy. While this is important for everyone, it is especially beneficial for those struggling with mental health issues. 

Outdoor exercise has shown to decrease stress and reduces the mind’s tendency towards negative and obsessive thought patterns. 

Unplugging and stepping away from the stress and stimuli of urban living proves to be medicine in itself. 

Hiking soothes our minds by lessening feelings of anger, anxiety and depression. 

The research is accumulating so much so that doctors and traditional health care providers are now prescribing “nature” or “eco-therapy” to patients for both physical and mental health. 

Let’s all collectively take a step further and use nature as a preventive measure to keep ourselves healthy, both physically and mentally.

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