Into the Woods
Hiking for Health and Happiness
Many of us equate fitness with going to the gym, but a good hike in a natural environment can foster unique benefits for both body and psyche.
Hiking or walking outdoors not only promotes heart health, helping to balance both blood sugar and blood pressure, it increases hip bone density to help reduce fractures, according to research on postmenopausal women from the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study. Navigating uneven terrain also necessitates lateral movement, which can strengthen core muscles and improve balance more significantly than working out on a treadmill or cycling.
Walk and Live Longer
Any kind of walking can be a great boon to health. Recent research by the American Cancer Society involving 140,000 older adults correlates a lower mortality rate with even short intervals of walking. Individuals in the study that walked six hours a week lowered their risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory disease. It also shows that just two hours of walking per week could significantly improve health.
“Walking and hiking balance the body through natural movement, oxygenation of the cells and the use of our muscles as they were designed to be used,” says Dami Roelse, of Ashland, Oregon, author of Walking Gone Wild: How to Lose Your Age on the Trail. “Walking is in our genes; DNA molecules need to be stimulated regularly to express themselves, and walking does just that. It also improves mood and cognition.”
The beauty of hiking is that it offers a tailored experience according to ability and personal interests. Day hikes, whether in the countryside or in urban botanical gardens or parks, are uplifting and ideal for any fitness level.
Longer or overnight treks with a backpack of supplies offer healthy challenges and opportunities for total immersion in nature. Bringing the kids on a hike offers family fitness time and a healthy way to unplug from technology and sneak in a fun learning experience about local flora and fauna.
Trek for a Healthier Brain
Exercise stimulates feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, but getting a workout in a natural setting fortifies the whole nervous system. A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science led by Stanford University researchers shows that walking in nature for 90 minutes decreases activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain most affected by depression. In contrast, individuals that walked in an urban environment did not reap the same results. Another 2015 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology shows that nature walks improve memory and decrease anxiety in teens.
The Japanese philosophy of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, woven into Japanese Shinto and Buddhist traditions, has become an important part of science-based health care in Japan. A significant 2009 study by Japanese researchers published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine shows that just 20 minutes of walking in the woods decreases stress hormones. Forest bathing has also been shown to speed postoperative healing, improve concentration in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and fortify immunity with an increased number of NK, or natural killer cells.
Naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley, in Washington, D.C., knows about Mother Nature’s therapeutic gifts firsthand. “I participated in some of the health research both in the field and the lab during a forest bathing trip to Japan,” says the author of The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life. “My vital signs were checked before and after shinrin-yoku walks, and in the lab my brainwaves were measured while viewing urban and forest scenes. My blood pressure was lower after every walk, and my brainwaves calmed while viewing forest scenes.” Choukas-Bradley emphasizes that forest bathing doesn’t require a forest setting, noting, “You can forest bathe in the desert, at the beach or even an urban park during a lunch break.”
Hitting the trails can also help us see life from another perspective. “Forests are living, breathing organisms. Mountains transcend my humanness,” muses Roelse. “It’s both a humbling and uplifting experience.”
Marlaina Donato is the author of several books on spirituality and clinical aromatherapy. She is also a composer.
Helpful Links and Inspiration
National trail guide resource
13 best hiking apps
Hiking with the kids
Beginning with day hiking
Backpacking tips for beginners
Practical advice, inspiration and tips for women hikers
Walking to stay fit
Library of forest bathing articles
This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.