Scientific Studies Reveal 7 Ways Hiking Can Transform Our Mind

I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.
/David Henry Thoreau/

The benefits of hiking are common knowledge and antidotes from those who engage are numerous.

Some consider hiking to be akin to therapy and the outdoors a place where they find healing.

Those in the scientific community have been studying the effects of nature and exercise on human psyche. The outcome of these studies has spurred the initiation of programs to:

  • lift the spirits of depressed elderly,
  • facilitate positive changes in troubled teens,
  • ease the suffering and stress of women recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

Without a doubt, hiking is good medicine. The outdoors are a solace for the body, mind and spirit.

Here we list 7 ways science has shown how hiking can transform the mind.

1. Hiking Reduces Stress and Lowers Cortisol

Forest Nature

Whatever you want to call it – exposure to rural scenes, nature, the great outdoors – reduces stress and lowers cortisol.

A group of researchers found that exposure to rural scenes reduced physiological stress and lowered cortisol levels to a greater extent than they expected.

The salivary cortisol levels of the test participants were measured after exposure to the rural environment, making the findings concrete, not merely subjective. Heart rate and blood pressure were also decreased.

It is interesting to note that these researchers tried to duplicate the effects by using a ‘virtual rural scene’ and the effects were not the same.

The environment must be real for the benefits to occur. The researchers concluded that hiking may be a viable way to manage stress and measurably reduce stress hormones, and stress indicators.

So, if you are feeling pressured, or perhaps got involved in a heated argument, maybe the best advice is to just walk it off.

2. Hiking May Increase Life Satisfaction and Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an interesting concept that has been receiving a lot of press these days.

Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment, what we are feeling and thinking at that moment in time.

Mindfulness is the opposite of ‘spacing out’ or doing things on autopilot, such as eating in front of the TV, where we are not really too focused on eating.

Meditation

When we enter a novel yet simple environment like we often do when hiking, we are removing ourselves from the distractions of our high-speed life and allow ourselves to slow down. The researchers found that this positively impacts self-awareness and attentiveness.

The study looked at 15 undergraduates who took a 9 day trek in the Swiss Alps and measured their level of mindfulness with the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale or MAAS and found the results demonstrated a large increase in mindfulness.

3. Hiking Increases a Person’s Sense of Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is a person’s belief that they have the ability to influence personal thoughts and behaviors.

This study looked at 9 adolescent girls who went on a 6 week guided hike.

One of the participants said they never believed they could complete such a long hike, but since they did accomplish it, they decided to set higher goals for themselves in the future.

The participant reasoned “If I can do this, why can’t I do other things?”

Another participant said the 6 week hike gave her the confidence to do things she previously thought she could not, which is a concept tied to self-efficacy.

The participants reported a newfound belief that they could handle any emotion or feeling they are faced with because hiking had helped to improve their emotional abilities.

The measurement of self-efficacy uses the GSES scale and examines 10 items regarding one’s belief of being capable of attaining the desired outcome through one’s actions.

Woman in Nature

4. Exercise In a Rural Environment Has Greater Effect on Self Esteem, Mood and Blood Pressure Than Exercise Alone.

This study revealed exercise in a rural nature scene had a positive effect on self-esteem, which was produced to a greater extent than exercise alone. This shows the synergistic effect of time spent in a wilderness environment, when combined with exercise.

Although all test participants experienced a decline in blood pressure, those with the greatest decline were in the rural nature scene category, as opposed to the control category and the urban category.

5. Hiking For an Extended Time Increases One’s Body Awareness

This study done in the Jordan desert took 9 test participants who suffer from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) on a strenuous 16 day hiking excursion.

The participants trained for the hike ahead of time to prepare for the vigor’s of the trip.

During the hike, they slept outdoors and had little access to modern technology such as phones and TV. Throughout the hike participants awoke and went to bed with the rising and setting of the sun.

The lack of distraction combined with being allowed to sleep and wake with the sun acted as a type of therapy, giving the hikers a better connection with their own body in order to understand and respect its limitations.

Technology has a tendency to control life and encourages people to ignore their body signals. Staying up late to watch TV or spend time on the computer means waking up later than intended or waking up tired.

Being free from this intrusion allowed the hikers to freely follow their own body clock.

Since the journey was also very physically demanding, the act of accomplishing the journey changed the way the participants thought of themselves, their limitations and their beliefs.

Man on a Cliff

The body awareness taught the participants to listen to their bodies instead of fighting them, making life easier.

The act of overcoming a difficult challenge gave them more confidence.

Many participants lost the fear and anxiety they had and replaced those with confidence and awareness of what worked for them and what did not.

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6. Hiking May Increase Divergent Thinking, Creativity and Introspection

This study looked at young adults on a 4 day wilderness retreat. The participants were not permitted to use any cell phones or computers for the duration of the retreat.

They were given a Remote Associate Test (RAT) which is a test used to measure creative thinking, insight and convergent creative reasoning.

The researchers believe that exposure to nature refreshed the participant’s ability to use their pre-frontal cortex, which is the brain’s hub for this high-level thinking.

The researchers hypothesized that use of modern technology and life in a high tech environment taxes this system to the point of depletion. Sleep deprivation also hinders this type of thinking and use of technology, especially in the evening disrupts natural sleeping patterns.

Researchers theorized that exposure to nature may engage a so-called ‘default mode’.

This default mode network in the brain is active during restful introspection and divergent thinking. The ‘default mode’ has an inward focus, so the use of technology, which requires an outward focus, detracts from default mode thinking.

Whether the researcher’s theory is right or not regarding the cause of increased creativity and introspection, the data is clear.

The participants scored 50 percent higher on the RAT test for creativity after 4 days in the wild.

7. Hiking Prevents Cognitive Decline and Brain Deterioration

One research paper reviewed the scientific literature regarding exercise and cognitive decline as one ages.

The paper says moderate exercise can be a preventative measure against cognitive and brain deterioration and that moderate exercise can be used as a therapy to reverse deterioration that already exists.

Many studies have shown a relationship between physical fitness and one’s propensity to develop these declines.

The paper also cited one study of older women that showed fitter women had ‘showed enhanced cognitive and brain volume measures’ than less fit peers.

Reverses in decline were seen with just 6 months of moderate aerobic activity and these older adults in the fit category retained capacity for plasticity executive processes which were most at risk for age-related decline.

Hiking

It is amazing when you consider that exercising, which is normally associated with keeping our muscles strong, can have an effect on our brain volume.

So there you have it, 7 mind-enhancing reasons to lace up your hiking boots and map out a healthy trek of your own.

It is easy and usually free or low cost to start hiking and the benefits are immense.

While researching this article, it was discovered that many people found not only benefits for the body and mind, but also social benefits of hiking by joining a hiking club.

In fact, many of the antidotal reports on the benefits of hiking were from members of hiking clubs who said the social aspect was the benefit they enjoyed the most.

There are many groups available and likely one in your area. Join one!

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