4 Ways Hiking Improves Your Mental Health
The most common question I was asked while thru-hiking the AT was “Why?” Everyone wanted to know: family members and friends who couldn’t believe I was purposely choosing to live in the woods; trail angels and trail town locals; and other hikers late at night around the fire. It’s the ultimate thru-hiking icebreaker.
I despaired of finding a succinct answer to this frequently asked question. One that didn’t go into all the deeply personal intricacies of why I’d decided to fulfill this dream. After being asked so often, I began making up reasons. “My tent’s cheaper than Colorado rent,” I’d say. Or, “I just wanted a good butt.” (Both of which are true.)
Mostly, I just knew that since a young age, hiking was what made me feel at home. It made me feel safe, empowered, strong, at peace, and connected to this world in a way nothing else ever had. In the mountains, I was the most at home in my body, comfortable in my mind, and clear about my place in the world.
I began listening to other people’s responses to this question. At the end of the day, everyone’s “why” had the same core: hiking just made us feel good. It seemed that hitting the trail was doing wonders for my friends’ and my mental health. My psychology-minded brain was eager to dive deeper into the effect of hiking on our mental health. So many people across time have found solace in nature: hiking transcends geographic location, gender, socioeconomic status, and age. So why exactly is it so good for your mental health?
1. Hiking is a Great Form of Exercise
Exercise might not be the main reason you’re hitting the trail, but it’s a beneficial side effect. Few forms of exercise beat the burning in your legs as you climb a steep hill.
The United States has the largest percentage of sedentary adults worldwide, with a reported 43 percent getting less than 150 minutes of activity a week. We know that exercise in any form is good for your physical health. You’ve probably heard that exercise is an important component of your mental and emotional well-being as well. But why?
Physical activity has been shown to increase the release of endorphins in your body. Endorphins are hormones that basically send feel-good pain-relieving messages through your body (cue Elle Woods telling us that endorphins make you happy and happy people don’t shoot their husbands).
Many different hypotheses have been proposed about why exercise is so beneficial to your mental health. Some researchers posit that exercise provides a distraction from everyday life. Others hypothesize that it increases self-efficacy as exercisers prove to themselves that they’re capable of completing a hard task.
Think about how you feel seeing the summit of a mountain. The rush as your legs propel you ever so slightly faster, unconsciously pushing you forward despite minutes earlier feeling like they could give out on you at any second. Those final steps to the top, when a smile creeps over your face as the wind whips up from somewhere far below. The thought of descent has no place in your mind in these moments, only the searing sense of accomplishment.
Moments like these are why researchers say exercise leads to an increase in self-confidence and mood through repeated activity. One study found that people needed to exercise between 2.5 and 7.5 hours per week to see mental health benefits from physical activity. This means that even that five-mile loop you love, every rock and root of which your feet have memorized, is long enough for you to reap the mental health benefits of hiking.
2. It Provides a Connection To Nature
As a child, my sister and I used to play in the small strip of woods outside our house, backed up by homes we pretended not to be able to see. The small section of woods felt wild, an oasis away from neighborhood kids and the monotony of our daily lives. We carved out hours on the weekends to explore the stream that brimmed with frogs we heard from our windows at night.
A 2008 study on health and urban living reported that over 50 percent of people live in urbanized areas, with that number expected to reach 70 percent in the next three decades. People’s connection to nature is dwindling, growing further away from the experience of our ancestors who spent most of their time outdoors.
One study looked at how a 90-minute walk affected rumination (defined as prolonged attention to the negative causes of emotions, which can be a predictor of depressive episodes and other mental health disorders). They found that a 90-minute walk in nature led to a decrease in rumination, while a 90-minute walk in an urban setting did not. The next time you feel bad for blowing off chores to take a hike or chill by the river, remember that the time you spend outdoors directly contributes to your well-being.
How long is enough? Can you procure these mental health benefits without committing to life in the woods for a solid six months? The answer, thankfully, is yes. A study that tracked location and mood across four different European countries found that there was a positive increase in mood after only ten minutes outside.
Another study showed that people who spent more than two hours outside each week had better emotional well-being and health than people who didn’t. This same study reported that spending at least two hours a week in nature could be compared to “(a) living in an area of low vs. high deprivation; (b) being employed in a high vs. low social grade occupation; and (c) achieving vs. not achieving recommended levels of physical activity in the last week.”
As my thru-hiker friends and I look for work after our stint of unemployment this summer, I find myself drawn to jobs I previously discounted because they weren’t “career-advancing” in the ways society expects. Jobs where I get to be outdoors and work with my hands. Ones that provide sufficient time off for me to continue exploring my passion outside the conventional nine-to-five.
So much of our society is focused on grind culture: bettering ourselves, but only through a career-focused lens. Yet the previously mentioned study provides evidence that time in nature has similar well-being outcomes to working a job that confers high socioeconomic status.
At the end of the day, your paystub does not preclude you from emotional suffering. But spending time in nature does increase your emotional health and well-being.
3. Hiking Creates Opportunities for Social Connection
Do you have a trail you constantly see the same people on, no matter what time of day you get there? For me, it was the Royal Arch hike at Chautauqua in Boulder, CO. This was my favorite hike, rigorous enough to make me feel accomplished but short enough that I could make it up the mountain for a view of the whole city before class.
My favorite part of this hike was that no matter when I went up, I’d always see a familiar face. Sometimes they were friends, but most of the time they were friendly strangers greeting me with a nod and a gentle smile of recognition. We didn’t have to know each other or feel the need to stop and talk. It was enough to know that we all loved this hike enough to keep walking the same trail week after week.
Social connectedness is one of the most important indicators of mental health and well-being. This article reported that having a sense of community results in people being 3.2 times more likely to report good mental health. Not feeling socially connected can result in more stress and a decreased perception of mental health. Hiking can be a great way to foster a sense of community when moving to a new place or when feeling disconnected from the world at large.
The sense of community is often a resounding takeaway from the thru-hiking experience. Love for the outdoors creates an instant connection with fellow trail users. Connnection is imperative to our well-being as humans, and what better way to foster that bond than through a mutual appreciation for the outdoors?
Hiking on the AT this summer, I kept contemplating how so many people could be so cool. Nature washes away the trivialities associated with living and leaves people with a raw, unpolished finish. It’s no coincidence that friends I grew up climbing and hiking with are still in my life because of this authenticity. The same stands for the friends I made this summer.
4. Being Outdoors Can Improve Your Sleep
Last night as I lay in bed, I visualized sheep jumping over imaginary fences, a cliche tactic my not-insomnia-prone dad swears by. Rain played softly against the roof, and a window was cracked open, leaving a crisp chill hovering over the comforter I was curled up in. The perfect sleeping conditions.
And yet thoughts swirled around in my head. Not in an in-and-out meditative way but with frenetic energy. So I lay awake unable to go to sleep, like so many nights before.
40 percent of Americans do not get the recommended amount of sleep each night. Sleep is elusive, especially in our fast-paced society. Yet adequate sleep is an important component of mental health and well-being. The Sleep Foundation reported that there is a “bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health in which sleeping problems may be both a cause and consequence of mental health problems.” One study found that access to natural environments decreased participants’ likelihood to report poor sleep.
It can be hard to find this access to the outdoors when living in urbanized areas, which is why hiking is the perfect anecdote to city life. Not only does being outside positively impact our sleep, but consistent exercise can help you sleep at night too. Research also suggests that exposure to sunlight can help reset your sleep cycle, leading to higher-quality rest by resetting and restoring your circadian rhythm.
Hiking provides a cornucopia of good sleep habits: exercise, exposure to the outdoors, and sunlight, all culminating in a recipe for improved mental health.
Hiking Makes You Happier
You know this. It’s why you’re reading this article on a backpacking website. You don’t need me to tell you that hiking makes you happy. But sometimes it’s nice to have some facts to back up the innate feeling.
Many studies have found that being in nature increases your happiness, but this one, in particular, focused on how forest walking can influence your general affect and mood positively. Walking in the forest has also been shown to decrease stress as well. 50 percent of our happiness is based on genetics and 10 percent on individual circumstances, leaving 40 percent of our happiness under our control.
Adding regular hikes into my routine makes me happier and healthier in every aspect of my life. Slowly, society is becoming more attuned to the positive impact nature has on us. Ecotherapy is a burgeoning field utilizing nature in restorative therapies. Somatic therapy uses movement to help aid traditional talk therapy procedures.
You don’t need an excuse to get out on the mountain. But if you are looking to improve your mental health, evidence suggests it’s a good idea to take a hike.
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