The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
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.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Tuna auctions are a tourist spectacle in Tokyo. Outside the city's most famous fish market, long queues of visitors hoping for a glimpse of the action begin to form at 5 a.m. The attraction is so popular that last October the Tsukiji fish market, in operation since 1935, moved out from the city center to the district of Toyosu to cope with the crowds.
gmnicholas / E+ / Getty Images
Kristan Porter grew up in a fishing family in the fishing community of Cutler, Maine, where he says all roads lead to one career path: fishing. (Porter's father was the family's lone exception. He suffered from terrible seasickness, and so became a carpenter.) The 49-year-old, who has been working on boats since he was a kid and fishing on his own since 1991, says that the recent warming of Maine's cool coastal waters has yielded unprecedented lobster landings.
The climate crisis is getting costly. Some of the world's largest companies expect to take over one trillion in losses due to climate change. Insurers are increasingly jittery and the world's largest firm has warned that the cost of premiums may soon be unaffordable for most people. Historic flooding has wiped out farmers in the Midwest.
Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.
'We Should Be Retreating Already From the Coastline,' Scientist Suggests After Finding Warm Waters Below Greenland
By Johnny Wood
The Ganges is a lifeline for the people of India, spiritually and economically. On its journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, it supports fishermen, farmers and an abundance of wildlife.
The river and its tributaries touch the lives of roughly 500 million people. But having flowed for millennia, today it is reaching its capacity for human and industrial waste, while simultaneously being drained for agriculture and municipal use.
Here are some of the challenges the river faces.
By Jake Johnson
As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.
Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.
AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.
"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."
Big Oil is now using its political power to try and criminalize protests of oil & gas infrastructure.— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) August 19, 2019
"This legislation has potential to punish public participation and mischaracterize advocacy protected by the First Amendment."https://t.co/bmiHjONEhy
The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.
"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.
As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."
"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."
Many of the state bills restricting the right to protest have been "drafted by companies and passed through groups like ALEC, the secretive group of corporate lobbyists trying to rewrite state laws to benefit corporations over people." @greenpeaceusa https://t.co/ZxpTjWdrwT— Stand Up To ALEC (@StandUpToALEC) May 6, 2019
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.