Exploring natural environments is, for many, a very pleasurable activity. As many of you might suspect, there are a few mental and physical benefits of hiking that one should be aware of. For this reason, I have decided to search for studies on the benefits of hiking and see what scientific data has to tell on why hiking is good for you.
As it often happens, we have difficulties explaining why we like what we like. Just as it is difficult to scientifically link your preference for a fruit or a soda with something in your body, such as a brain area, it is difficult to explain why you are willing to invest time and sometimes money in order to explore remote places and “connect” with nature.
If you’re like me, you do not only enjoy breathing air that you suspect it’s clean but also enjoy listening to the sound of a river or a campfire, smelling the trees or fruits, and watching a small part of the world from the top of a mountain. Trekkers tend to love all that and more, but it’s quite hard to tell why some humans feel so good doing this stuff.
My guess is that homo sapiens sapiens has evolved for most of their history in a natural environment, and returning to this environment stimulates them in a way that an anthropic environment does not (of course, the anthropic environment offers plenty of cool stimulation too). What do you think?
Psychological Benefits of Hiking
Research studies suggest that the physical effort hiking requires can have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, and mood problems (see this for a summary of a few such studies). According to these studies, if you are experiencing stress, anxiety, or symptoms of depression, you may want to consider having a trekking day. That being said, please don’t forget that if you are experiencing serious symptoms of anxiety and depression, you should always ask a mental health professional for help.
An interesting study (Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily & Gross, 2015, see reference below) explored the possibility of a relationship between decreased nature experience and mental illness. One mechanism that scientists believe might explain this relationship is the effect of nature exposure on rumination – a term describing a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with an increased risk for depression and other mental illnesses.
In order to test the nature exposure hypothesis, the researchers placed several participants either in a nature exposure experiment or in an urban exposure one that lasted 90 minutes in each case. More specifically, a few healthy participants walked for 90 minutes in a green space comprised of grassland with oak trees and shrubs near Stanford University (a place that is likely never used for hiking), while others walked in an urban setting (somewhere near Palo Alto, El Camino Real) for the same amount of time.
The group who walked in nature showed a decrease in self-reported rumination as well as a decrease in neural activity in an area of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC). In previous studies, this part of the brain has been associated with a self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in depressed and healthy individuals. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Physical Benefits of Hiking
Now that you know some of the psychological benefits of hiking, it’s time to discuss the physical benefits of the same. Those benefits, as you might know, are generally associated with physical activity.
According to WebMD, hiking lowers the risk of heart diseases, improves blood pressure and sugar levels, increases bone density, strength in glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, and lower legs muscles, strengthens your core, improves balance, and helps with weight control – something which has also been discussed in this post.
Of course, hiking is not the only option when it comes to physical activity, and it’s certainly not the most accessible option. While you should still engage in regular physical exercises even if you are an occasional hiker, you can be quite certain that, in most cases, hiking will have positive effects on your physical health.
Overall, studies suggest that there are physical and mental benefits from hiking. Perhaps the future will bring more studies about the effects of “ecotherapy” and hiking. For now, despite limited research, we can be quite confident that hiking provides health benefits for most people.
Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 112(28), 8567-8572.