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  • Writer's pictureJen Ottolino

Want a Healthier Brain? Take a Hike

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Brisk walks in nature don’t just help you stay fit. They may make your brain healthier, too


hiking in the forest
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” - - Henry David Thoreau

Since the start of the pandemic, it’s like the whole world has gone hiking. In the US alone, 58 million people reported going hiking in 2020, around 8 million more than in 2019 according to Statista.


Hiking’s popularity continues to surge, as more and more people discover the joy of being on the trail. Walking with our human companions and furry friends in a quiet meadow or majestic forest provides a respite from the chaos of modern life. It appeals to the early human in us, bringing us closer to our truer natures. Plus, hiking is accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. It’s great fun. And oftentimes (other than maybe a park entrance fee) it’s free!


What most people don’t realize is that hiking’s benefits go way beyond getting shapely calves or burning off last night’s deep-dish pizza. Here are a few ways that hiking can enhance brain health for people of all ages.


Brains love it when we exercise


If you’ve ever hiked uphill for a few hours, you know that hiking is a superb form of exercise. Even hiking on flat ground can be a solid workout if you walk briskly. The good news is that most exercise not only helps build muscle but also helps to build brain cells (neurons). While the most rapid brain growth happens early in our lives, our brains continue to add and prune neurons continuously throughout adulthood. In an article on popular wellness website, Eating Well, neuroscience professor Ebony Glover weighs in on how exercise positively affects brain structure.


“Exercise can generate and protect new neurons, and increase the volume of brain structures, leading to overall improved cognition and health in general," says Dr. Glover.

A recent article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reviewed 2733 studies on how exercise affects mental health and showed a wide range of benefits. Most who exercised improved their precision and response time on cognitive tests. Exercise showed many benefits specifically for children, including improvements in memory, attention, impulse control, and even school performance. Numerous studies also found that exercise was particularly helpful for those over 50. Older exercisers sharpened their memories, enhanced visual-spatial skills, reduced dementia risk, and more.


Our brains thrive in nature


Have you ever noticed how you feel during or after a long walk in nature? You’re probably not fretting about your to-do list or that cryptic thing your boss said to you last Tuesday. This is because wilderness calms our bodies and clears our minds, like pressing a “reset” button.


While we may know this intuitively, there is actually a large body of scientific evidence to back it up. Exposure to nature can reduce stress, deepen sleep, increase positive emotions, and reduce negative ones, according to a recent review of the past decade’s research on the connections between nature and physical and mental health.


What’s more, in the wilderness, it’s easy to experience a sense of awe. In a 2021 study on “awe walks," participants took weekly 15-minute outdoor walks for 8 weeks. Those in the control group were not given any specific instructions, while those in the “awe” group were encouraged to seek out awe experiences on their daily walks. Unsurprisingly, those in the “awe” group reported experiencing more awe during their nature walks. But they also reported feeling more joy and other positive emotions during the days of the study period compared to those in the control group. These results suggest that being open to “awe experiences” while hiking could take your brain’s delight to a whole new level. The University of California San Francisco website quotes from an interview with one of the study authors, Dacher Keltner, PhD, a psychologist who is considered an expert on human emotions:


“Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable — such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert or political march...Experiencing awe can contribute to a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being and humility," says Dr. Keltner.

Social connection makes for a happy brain


There is certainly a time and place for solo hiking. But hiking with buddies can be positively exhilarating and may amplify the positive brain effects. Studies have shown that interacting with our fellow humans can protect against age-related memory decline. In fact, social connectedness is so powerful for the brain, the Cleveland Clinic’s HealthyBrains.org considers it one of the main pillars of brain health.


If your preferred hiking buddy has fur, no worries. Brains like animal friends, too according to Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.


“Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood,” says Dr. Sabbagh.

Tips to help your brain get the most out of hiking


1. You don’t have to be climbing a steep hill to realize the brain benefits of hiking. As long as you move at a brisk pace — around 20 minutes per mile — you maximize the health advantages for your brain.


2. While hiking, try to open yourself up to awe experiences. You don’t have to be hiking in the Grand Canyon to experience awe and wonder. An old, gnarled tree or a simple blooming flower can be pure magic if you look at it with the right eyes.


3. Carve out a regular time in your schedule to hike with family or friends, for example, on a given day before work (if you live in a place where that’s possible) or a weekend afternoon. Regular hiking dates will not only enhance your physical and mental health, but they may also strengthen the bonds with your hiking buddies, creating deeper and more meaningful social connections that will further enhance your mental well-being.


4. Consistency is key. One hike won’t lead to lasting health for your body and brain. If you enjoy hiking, consider making it a habit. Your brain will thank you for it down the trail.


 

Find a hike near you at AllTrails

 

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