Why is hiking cool? 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, it is difficult to explain why you are willing to invest time and sometimes money in order to explore remote places and use cool equipment to “connect” with nature. If you’re like me, you do not only enjoying breathing air that you suspect it’s clean, but also listen to the river or the sound of a campfire, smelling the trees or their products, and watch 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 have 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). What do you think?
Given that hiking and camping are pleasurable for many people, it seems reasonable to suspect that it provides important psychological benefits. Those who have not thought about it should consider that research suggests that the physical effort hiking requires can have a positive impact on stress and anxiety (see this for a summary of a few such studies). In other words, 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) discuss 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 (rumination refers to a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with 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, some healthy participants walked for 90 minutes in a greenspace comprising grassland with oak trees and shrubs near Stanford University (a place that is likely never used for trekking) 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.
Now that you know some of the science that might explain why being in nature feels good, it’s time to recall the physical benefits of trekking. 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. Of course, trekking 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 trekker, you can be quite certain that in most cases trekking will have positive effects on your physical health.
Here we have discussed some of the most obvious and studied effects of nature walk and physical activity. 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, backpacking, and camping can provide health benefits for many or maybe most people.
I would like to know how “connecting” with nature has helped you or is helping you right now (online while trekking?). Another thing I would like humans to answer is whether they know what kind of studies could be conducted in order to better understand the effects of natural and anthropic environments on psychological well-being. Feel free to also propose a research design if you are into that kind of stuff.
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.