Quantcast
Health
Pixabay

If Meditation Is Not Your Thing, Try a Walk in the Woods

By Karin Klein

There are times when I don't know what to do with myself. I feel at odds with the world, irritated by the people in it, in a funk about myself and what I'm achieving or, rather, not achieving, overwhelmed by the obstacles and complications of life. Happiness seems like an entirely elusive state of being.


At such moments, my friends know exactly what I should do. "When's the last time you've been on a hike?" they inquire gently, and it's time for a head smack. Of course, that's the answer. I might not feel like pulling on my hiking boots; my mood is more in line with reclining on the couch and streaming Breaking Bad for the billionth time. But what I need is the trail.

To say that I return in a better mood would be damning nature with faint praise. I'm wholly restored, optimistic, energized, almost euphoric. I sleep soundly that night.

For a long time, hiking felt like my personal mental health elixir, a magical relationship just between me and nature. The truth is that I was experiencing phenomena well known to science. Hiking is a near-perfect combination of elements known to relax us, raise our alertness, elevate our self-esteem, and physically prepare us for true rest afterward. It exposes us to sunlight, outdoors, the color green, the sound of water, physical activity, social interaction. All of these have been shown in research to have beneficial effects on our mental well-being.

Me, I can't meditate for shit. Sitting that long, paying attention to my breath or an imaginary white light, chafes my natural impatience. In contrast, hiking easily brings me to that sought-after state of being "in the moment." Hikers pay attention to where they are and what's going on. They have to, in order to avoid obstacles along the trail as well as such annoyances as poison oak and ivy. At the same time, the trail is a multisensory experience that calls on us to observe wildflowers, smell aromatic plants, and hear bird calls and the rustle of small animals in the brush.

These outings became such a strong return-to-sanity requirement for me that I trained to become a certified naturalist for my region's wilderness parks and wrote a hiking book. Most people don't go quite that far, but it's an unusual newbie who doesn't discover the restorative powers of the trail.

That's not to say that hiking can cure serious mental illness. But research shows it's a useful adjunct to other treatments for serious emotional conditions. For mild to moderate stress and depression, nature walks have time and again been found to boost mood and banish stress.

Science says it's both the walking and the nature that make powerful medicine together.

There's plenty of evidence in favor of exercise, which improves mood and reduces anxiety, releasing endorphins and raising serotonin levels. But a 2016 study in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity specifically found that bouts of outdoor exercise were significantly better at lifting the mood of people with mild to moderate depression than indoor activity. Previous studies found that so-called "green exercise"—and they didn't mean golf courses—raised self-esteem, especially among those with mental illness.

Exposure to sunlight alone improves cognitive function, according to a 2009 study in the journal Environmental Health. For that matter, outdoor exercise has been shown to lead to more vigorous workouts; people walk faster and longer but perceive their workouts as easier.

Other aspects of nature have a calming rather than stimulating effect; studies have found that the colors green and blue—the hues that make up most nature scenery—are relaxing, as well as the sound of flowing water.

Despite how cheap, helpful, and easy hiking is, access to nature itself can be uneven and downright difficult. People living in dense urban areas are generally farther from the backcountry and might not have cars to get there. Low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have parks of any kind. These are often places where Black and Latino communities are located, so they are particularly affected. A 2011 report by the National Park Service found that non-Hispanic Whites were highly likely to visit the parks, while "African Americans and Hispanic Americans visited at the lowest rates."

Various groups are chipping away at barriers. Outdoor Afro facilitates outdoor access in the Black community. In Orange County, California, the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, which provides free guided hikes on conservation lands, has begun offering some of them in Spanish. Latino Outdoors is a nonprofit dedicated to providing nature experiences for that community, and Disabled Sports USA helps people with physical challenges get out on the trail. An increasing number of parks offer wheelchair-accessible trails. And for anyone who lacks a group to join, many wilderness parks include docent-led tours to give you a safe introduction to the back country.

While not as meditative as a solo walk in the woods, these kinds of programs address another aspect of mental well-being. Group outings overcome reluctance to venturing in unfamiliar backcountry and appear to heighten the positive effects of nature walks.

A 2012 study found that such experiences could even help people with suicidal thoughts. "A group experience of regular monitored mountain hiking, organized as an add-on therapy to usual care, is associated with an improvement of hopelessness, depression, and suicide ideation in patients suffering from high-level suicide risk," the authors concluded in their paper.

But endurance climbs over steep hills aren't needed to reap the social and emotional up sides of gathering with others on the trail. According to a 2014 study in the journal Ecopsychology, group walks in nature were linked to significantly lower depression and stress, as well as an enhanced sense of mental well-being.

Of course, any kind of exercise can be taken to unhealthy extremes. And taking on physical challenges in the wilderness without the proper knowledge, equipment, or level of fitness can be downright perilous. Hiking alone or going off trail often gets people into life-threatening situations. But I've been hiking regularly for 20 years without that ever happening. The studies seem conclusive: With reasonable care, a walk in nature is much more likely to help us than hurt.

I'd be on the trail, anyway. But it's good to know that science is on my side.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Insights
A healthy vegan snack board of fruit, vegetables, dips, nuts and olives. Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

Changing the Main Course of Climate Change

By Chloë Waterman

As the Trump administration's dangerous deregulatory agenda leads us closer to climate catastrophe, cities, counties and businesses are stepping up to address the crisis. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg released their "Fulfilling America's Pledge" plan, laying out the top climate strategies for subnational governments and businesses, at the Global Climate Action Summit.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The aftermath of flooding and landslides in North Sumatra in Indonesia. AGUS SALIM / AFP / Getty Images

At Least 27 Dead as Landslides Strike Indonesia, Including Village School

Another tragedy struck Indonesia Friday when heavy rains triggered flash flooding and mudslides that killed at least 27 in Sumatra, ABC reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
A satellite image of Hurricane Leslie as it approached Portugal. NOAA Satellites

27 Injured, 300,000 Without Power as Leslie Becomes Strongest Storm to Hit Iberian Peninsula Since 1842

Leslie became the rare named Atlantic tropical system to hit Europe late Saturday when it rammed into Portugal as a post-tropical cyclone, injuring 27 and leaving more than 300,000 without power, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

Leslie had been downgraded from a Category One hurricane before making landfall, but it still lashed Portugal with hurricane-force winds. The seaside town of Figueira da Foz recorded wind speeds of 105 miles per hour.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
Pexels

5 Ways to Green Your Halloween

By Clara Chaisson

If you're into the spooky side of Halloween, there are plenty of fun ways to get your fear fix—going to a haunted house, slathering on fake blood or taking in the latest horror flick. But not even the most adventurous fright fans want to be scared about their family's health or the planet's come Oct. 31. That's not fun-scary, that's just plain old scary.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals
An Ecuadoran ornithologist with rare images of the blue-throated hillstar. Rodrigo Buendia / AFP / Getty Images

These Newly Discovered Hummingbirds Can Survive High in the Andes—but Habitat Destruction Is Creeping Up on Them

By Jason Bittel

Somehow the striking blue-throated hillstar, a hummingbird with an emerald-feathered head and sapphire splash across its neck, managed to elude us for a very long time. Scientists just recently discovered Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus, describing the species for the first time in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
Natalia Bulatova

8 Indoor Crops for Winter Gardening

By Brian Barth

Winter is coming. But don't go putting your gardening gloves away just yet.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals
Jason Riedy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Vandals Kill Tens of Thousands of Honeybees in Iowa

A farmer in Iowa lost tens of thousands of honeybees and after vandals destroyed several hives on two separate occasions.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Grateful Acres Farm northeast of Des Moines said it found three of its strongest hives smashed by logs, bricks and cinder blocks. Each hive can hold up to 60,000 insects, the Des Moines Register reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Del Mar, a beach city in San Diego. atramos / CC BY 2.0

Top 10 Greenest Cities in America

San Diegans, pat yourselves on the back. Your city was ranked as 2018's "greenest city" in the U.S., beating out perennially crunchy San Franciscans by less than a point, according to WalletHub's calculations.

In a report released this week, the personal finance website compared the 100 most populated U.S. cities across 26 key "green" indicators, from greenhouse gas emissions per capita to share of electricity from renewable sources. Even the number of farmers markets and green job opportunities were considered.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!