Maintaining

Hiking: A Great Rx for Mental Health

We all know walking and hiking are great ways to boost our physical health. However, few of us probably realize just how beneficial it is to go hiking for mental health reasons too.

As I write this, I am 10 days away from heading to the Scottish Highlands for two weeks. While I am looking forward to rediscovering muscles that I simply don’t get the chance to exercise at home (no mountains where we live, sadly), it’s the mental side of things I am most looking forward to taking care of.

All walks are great for physical and mental well-being. However, researchers have found that walking in nature could have a more profound and positive impact. The research article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, revealing that a 90-minute walk in nature has a far more positive effect on the brain than a walk of the same length in an urbanized setting.

The study cited a decrease in neural activity in a part of the brain that has been linked to risks associated with mental illnesses such as depression. Those who walked in nature were far less likely to ruminate on negative aspects of themselves. This wasn’t the case among those who walked in urban areas.

Personally, I tend to feel lighter in myself, my mood, and my outlook whenever I walk into a forest or head up a mountain. And I feel tiny. It’s hard to feel anything but tiny when you’ve finally made it to the top of a mountain and you’re looking out onto the world below and miles into the distance. At least on a clear day. Even when I’m up in the clouds and there are no views to be had, I feel small, calm, and at peace. Even in the depths of a forest, there are trees that stood long before I was born and will hopefully still be there long after I’m gone.

We don’t live near these mountains or forests, so we seek them out for vacations. However, we do still have plenty of green spaces, rivers, and woods near us, and we make the most of those while we’re at home. There is nothing better than heading out first thing to see the sun rise over the local river, to wander through the local woods, and to see our dog enjoying it too!

At home, I tend to head out first thing to set myself up for the day. And as the dog loves routine as much as I do, we continue this on vacation. But any hike of any length that takes in the natural world around us has the same positive effects.

While I always feel better coming back from a Highland vacation, I know I must seek out nature closer to home too. The mental benefits far outweigh the physical ones for me, acting as a protective layer against negativity, anxiety, and low mood.

Try it. You might be surprised at how beneficial it feels — both in body and soul.

-Allison Whitehead

Photo by Eric Sanman (Pexels.com)

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