If you can’t get out of your head, why not get into nature? Hiking can provide one of the best ways to destress!
Could a simple act of nature help you get over what’s keeping you down? There’s a reason hiking is the fourth-most-popular outdoor recreation activity. Nearly 45 million people hit the trails in 2017, including both casual and long-distance hikes. (There are even people who hike places like Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, which is 1,150 miles long!)
Harvard Health Blog says that “spending time in green space may ease people’s stress levels.” And while you probably don’t have the time to hike a thousand miles every time you’re a little edgy, you can probably manage an hour here and there!
Hiking has crazy benefits, including:
- Cardio exercise
- Time in nature
- Time (mostly) away from screens
- Time spent with loved ones (or alone, or with your dog—whatever hits the spot for you when you’re stressed)
All those benefits have one thing in common: they contribute to stress reduction!
The evidence for hiking and stress relief
Curious what science has to say about hiking and stress relief? There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that nature and exercise can reduce self-reported stress. But what’s really interesting are the physical changes that happen when you enter a little wilderness.
- In a 2019 study, nature exposure three times per week led to a drop in cortisol and alpha-amylase, biomarkers for stress.
- In a 2010 study, forest bathing (or making mindful contact with the forest atmosphere) “lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity,” all indicators of stress reduction.
Reconnecting with the natural world can relieve stress
We spend a lot of time indoors—90% of it, in fact! Sometimes, it’s hard to remember our connection with the natural world simply because we don’t experience it regularly. Making a point to spend meaningful time outdoors by hiking can help put things into perspective.
Hiking is exercise (which provides stress relief)
There’s no doubt that hiking can be pretty rigorous, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack or hiking long distances on crazy terrain. Good news: pretty much all kinds of exercise reduce stress.
A good hike that gets you sweating a bit can:
- Get your endorphins flowing (feel-good chemicals that ease stress)
- Protect your body against the adverse effects of the fight-or-flight response
- Allow you to focus on what’s in front of you, not what’s on your mind
- Improve depression and anxiety, which are a natural consequence of chronic stress
Hiking in all conditions can increase stress tolerance
Ever spend a couple of hours hiking on rough terrain with loud winds howling in your ear and some wet conditions? Rain-or-shine hiking can really put things into perspective by showing that, yeah, you can be uncomfortable. And not only will you survive it, but you might even appreciate it!
Intentionally exposing yourself to minor stress like bad weather (and tolerating it to the end) conditions you to handle stress better overall.
How to get the most therapeutic benefit from hiking
If you’ve never hiked before, don’t worry! Dr. Aaron L. Baggish of Massachusetts General Hospital says, “The nice thing about hiking is that it exists across an entire continuum, from a gentle walk on a flat wooded path to mountain climbing.”
It’s pretty simple to find a hiking regimen that works for anyone, even those who have never touched a pair of boots!
Here’s what to remember to get the most out of hiking:
- Hiking with somebody is great: It’s an excellent opportunity for human connection, so bring someone along, if possible. It’s good for safety in certain settings, too—tell someone if you decide to go alone.
- Bring a map and compass: You might not get cell service where you’re going, so make sure you have a way to get back if it goes topsy-turvy. (Less worry on the beginner trails, though!)
- Drink, drink, DRINK!: It’s really easy to get dehydrated when you’re moving your body in the sun, so bring more water than you think you'll need, and don't be afraid to drink it. There’s no such thing as rationing for pee breaks when you’re in the woods! Also, mind the electrolytes and bring some with you on long hikes, as sweating them all out causes issues, regardless of how much water you drink.
- Use hiking poles for muddy or unstable terrain: If you’re going somewhere that’s not a relatively smooth trail, bring some hiking poles. These collapsible poles fit in a pack and have spikes on the ground end to help with traction.
- Keep the phone where it belongs: In your pocket! That's right; hiking should be an opportunity to practice mindfulness and really appreciate nature and what your body is capable of doing. Resist the opportunity to open Facebook notifications until you’re out of the woods!
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