Hiking is excellent exercise for our bodies, and getting out into nature always makes us feel great mentally. But, now science tells us that not all hiking is created equal, and one kind actually makes changes inside our brains that improve our well-being.
Many of us have experienced intrusive, negative thoughts. Obsessing and constantly dwelling on negative feelings is called rumination, and doing it can suck all the joy out of an otherwise normal moment, possibly even leading to anxiety and depression.
According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outdoor activity is shown to reduce rumination significantly.
However… there’s a key difference when it comes to WHERE you hike.
For this study, researchers compared the rates of rumination between hikers walking through urban areas and hikers walking through nature areas. Hikers who took a walk for 90-minutes in nature areas reported their rates of rumination to be much lower than when they started. They also showed reduced neural activity in the part of the brain, often affected by mental illness, called the subgenual prefrontal cortex.
Meanwhile, hikers in the urban areas reported no decrease in their rates of rumination.
Researchers noted increased time spent in urban areas was directly related to increased rates of mood disorders like depression and other mental illness. When moved to natural spaces, though, the psychological boost was significant.
Another hiking study by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer tested volunteers who took part in a four day hike without bringing along any technology. The participants showed a 50-percent improvement in their performance, including better focus and more creative problem-solving, when completing a series of required tasks on the hike. They concluded the increased focus and creativity was a result of being away from the noises of urbanization and technology.
To that same end, a study conducted by Frances E Kup, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, showed that spending time in nature significantly improved focus and impulse control in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Because hiking is also great aerobic exercise, it offers similar benefits, including lowered stress and anxiety, increased self esteem and the release of endorphins. This study from the University of British Columbia found aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in women over the age of 70, meaning that memory loss was reduced and even prevented altogether.
Almost anyone can start hiking as a regular outdoor activity. Local park trails are perfect and can be found on your phone using a variety of apps.
So leave the phone off to minimize distractions, lace up your sturdy shoes and layer your clothing for whatever the weather brings. Then grab some water and head outside! You’ve got some brain changing to do.