The Mental Health Benefits Of Hiking

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Hiking is one of those things that someone can easily fall in love with. There is no better feeling than strapping on a backpack, loading it full of the basics, and embarking on a journey out into nature. Whether you live in a city and love it, or live right on the edge of the great outdoors, you cannot deny that hiking brings out a newfound love for nature, health, and fitness.

Hiking isn’t always about getting out and getting active. Many people really focus on the active benefits of hiking, but what about the passive benefits that result from this activity? Did you know that hiking actually has mental health benefits as well?

The Reason I Started Hiking

I grew up in a really rural area, so being outdoors was perhaps 90% of my childhood experience. As I grew older I spent more time at school and working on projects or at some athletic event. While playing sports is great for you, it doesn’t quite give you the same sense of being outside and connecting with nature that activities like hiking can.

As I stayed indoors for a lot of my teenage life, I had an overwhelming urge to explore more of my surroundings. You could often find me jetting away to the beach with friends to go camping, or randomly heading up into the mountains to stay for a night or two.

The reason for these excursions was primarily to get out of my own head, connect with nature, and go on a couple good hikes. Some of you that may be reading are still in these teenage years, so I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities while you still can because it only gets harder as you gain more responsibilities.

As we go through life and wade deeper into our careers, we start to get caught up in the office late hours, we sit inside and watch television on the weekends, and most of our exercise begins to come from gym based workouts which are also indoors. My solution to combatting the indoor hours has been to take up a more direct approach via hiking. If you are wondering why I mention the indoor hours, it’s because

staying indoors for too long can begin to take a toll on your mental health…

In addition to screwing up your body’s circadian clock, which can be detrimental for all sorts of health reasons and can directly contribute to diabetes and substance abuse, staying indoors all day with no exposure to nature has been proven to lead to depression and anxiety.

You may be arguing that you aren’t depressed or anxious, and that’s awesome, but if you are slightly moody after staying inside for long periods of time you may be feeling these effects and not knowing it. Also, getting outdoors can directly contribute to mental health through relaxing your mind and removing you from what you have subconsciously deemed a “thinking environment”. This brings me to the correlation between hiking and mental health.

Hiking and Mental Health: The Science

One important fact to understand is that there is legitimate science behind the effects of hiking. More specifically, the effects of nature against the urban environment. While urban environments are great for high stress people who enjoy the hustle and bustle, they too need to slow down and experience nature to allow their brain’s recovery.

A Stanford study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that “people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.” (via news.stanford.edu)

With depression being such a common affliction these days, and having multiple friends that fight with extreme ups and downs regularly, it is important that we all make sure we are keeping our minds as fit as we can in order to avoid these bouts with negative thinking.

Multiple medical studies have linked Vitamin D and depression, showing that Vitamin D levels tend to be very low in a large majority of patients showing signs and symptoms of depression. Since a large percentage of the population, due to diet, is now naturally Vitamin D deficient we are seeing an ever increasing rate of those with symptoms of even minor depression or anxiety.

Hiking connects you with nature, and more often than not hiking is only appropriate on days when the sun is high in the sky and the surroundings are energetic with wildlife. Since the Sun’s direct contact with our skin allows our bodies to generate large quantities of Vitamin D in a short time period, even just a short hike on the weekends can contribute to a fantastic week. So scientifically speaking, go on a hike!

Hiking and Mental Health: The Spirituality

I personally have spiritual reasons for hiking as well. I keep having to throw out the disclaimer that I’m not a total hippie, but I’m starting to not believe myself either. I genuinely enjoy stomping through the trees, the smell of the woods, and listening to the birds chirp.

I enjoy seeing the colors of nature, and with the recent wildflower blooms there has never been a more perfect time to go exploring. All the vibrant greens, yellows, reds, and blues contribute to my happiness. I feel connected with nature on another level, and when it is just myself and nature I am able to think more clearly about my life and my goals. Taking a step away from all the concrete and black, white, and gray allows me to remember who I am as a person and how much I enjoy the sun and clear skies.

When I come back from a quiet hike, I am always able to refocus myself on my career goals, my goals to help people experience the thoughts and happiness that I experience every day, and my goals for being healthier and more caring towards the environment.

I guess not everyone is able to look within themselves just because of a quiet one on one connection with nature, and maybe some of you don’t believe in the things I do, and that’s totally fine. However, I still argue that the scientific effects alone are enough of a reason to get outdoors and connect with nature.

Many people that are reading this are probably city dwellers like myself. I understand it can be quite a daunting task to get outside and find a new and exciting place to explore. However, I have learned that a quick Google Search for the best hiking spots in {Your City Here} has turned out to provide many hidden gems that you would have never known were there if you weren’t actively seeking them out.

You can also integrate hiking into your travel. I have some ideas about doing this that I will most certainly share in another article.

So the moral of the story is, that everyone should be getting outdoors and going on a hike here and there to better their mental health. This includes you. When I first moved to the city I made quite a few excuses for not hiking. I quickly realized that a large majority of these excuses, other than terrible weather, were not valid reasons to stay indoors. The more I’ve been able to get outside and explore, the more I’ve been able to enjoy the weekdays and power through work.

If you have any tips for finding new places to hike, want to talk about places I hike, or just want to say hello feel free to leave comments below. I love chatting with those who are reading, so don’t be shy.

 

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8 Comments

  • I absolutely love hiking! I also grew up spending lots of time outdoors but with years that changed due to school then work.
    I live in the Netherlands so I’m lucky to have ability to ride my bike pretty much everywhere 🙂 Even though we don’t have much untouched nature, still you can find a piece of forest to reconnect with nature, contemplate and just enjoy being in the now, which I find is much easier than meditating at home.
    I absolutely agree with you that everyone should be getting outdoors more often…it’s so therapeutic!
    Peace,
    Ingrida

    • Dalton

      Ingrida,

      Awesome thoughts! It is tough with school and work and now I have to make it a point to get outside. Cycling is great too! It really allows you to see the countryside and explore just as hiking does. Sometimes more.

      I find it awesome that you also find therapeutic benefits in hiking. Thanks for reading!

      Dalton

  • You are right. Staying in all the time is a risk. I only go out the door if working or going to the store for the most part. It can get to you if you are not careful. Hiking in a nice peaceful place is relaxing and good for the mental health and physical. Of course here in Kansas hiking up a mountain is a bit tough. You really have to look hard for one to hike up ! How ever we do have some nice lakes and stuff that are enjoyable to walk around, oh and no bears to eat us so that is a plus.

    • Dalton

      Haha, thanks for reading Mark. It’s tough when you really only leave for the necessities. Kansas is a bit different than here in California but it sounds like you do still have some solid options! Without all the California grizzlies also.

      -Dalton

  • Eye-opener article! I used to take a walk in the city, 800 steps a day, with a help of my fitness tracker. From now on, I will try hiking very soon. Thanks for this valuable information.

    • Dalton

      Hi Christian,

      I’m glad this was helpful to you. 800 steps is a great start to at least get moving. Hiking usually puts me up in the 20-30k steps range depending on how solid of a hike it was.

      -Dalton

  • I’m like you – grew up in the country, moved to the city and I miss being in nature. I do love a good hike, but while we’re on the topic of mental health and hiking I do get some anxiety around hiking alone sometimes. My overly safety conscious (ok, slightly paranoid) brain goes off on all kinds of tangents about what would happen if I tripped and broke an ankle, all alone in the wilderness. Do you have some tips for making solo hiking safer?

    Thanks!

    • Dalton

      Shirley,

      This is a good alternate perspective as I never really thought about that side of it! Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I think my biggest suggestions would be first off always letting people know where you’re going and the route you plan to take if it is something more back country. If it is just a populated trail around town you will likely be alright if you pack the appropriate food and water supplies to get you through a day of hiking. I always over pack a bit as I’d rather have excess and not too little.

      If you can manage to find someone to hike with, this is usually the best as you generally can have decent conversation if you are concerned about hiking alone. I think that as far as safety from animals or maybe other people on the trail goes I would always carry some pepper spray or personally I carry a pretty big skinning knife with me most of the time on my belt. I know a lot of people that hike back country where bears are popular who have invested in pistols but guns aren’t necessarily for everyone so I would probably stick to the previous two options if you are looking to hike locally.

      Hope that helps and thanks for reading!

      Dalton

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