I live in Oregon, and hiking here really is something else, especially if you’re hiking in the Cascade or Coastal ranges. The forests are dank and mossy and the ocean views are second-to-none. So it should come as no surprise to you that I love to hike!
What I didn’t realize is that hiking has the ability to change our brains.
It seems a little strange, right? You’d expect hiking to tone your legs and improve cardiovascular health (which it does), not change our brains! But a handful of studies seem to confirm that going for a hike can change your brain for the better.
Here are 4 of the most interesting scientific findings about hiking and mental health.
1. Hiking boosts your brain power.
According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, aerobic exercise, like hiking, has the ability to improve our overall cognition and memory. The study involved 86 women between 70 and 80 years old. Researchers found that aerobic exercise increased hippocampal volume among the volunteers, which is associated with episodic and special memories.
The researchers concluded that aerobic exercise, like hiking, can help prevent cognitive decline associated with aging and improve memory.
2. Hiking improves the symptoms of ADHD in children.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is reaching epidemic proportions. According to the Washington Post, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD has exceeded 10%. But the news isn’t all bad.
A study conducted by researchers Frances E. Kuo, PhD and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD saw a reduction in the symptoms of ADHD in children who were exposed to what the study described as “green outdoor activities.”
Outdoor exercise, like playing in a park, was found to improve the symptoms of ADHD, but the researchers also found that simply exposing children to natural settings, like with a window seat overlooking a green space, had positive impacts.
3. Hiking reduces anxiety and obsessive negative thoughts.
In yet another study, researchers found that just a 90 minute walk in a natural setting reduced self-reported anxiety and negative thinking. Conversely, a 90 minute walk in an urban environment did not have the same effect at all.
In addition to participants reporting fewer ruminations overall, there was also a reduction in neural activity in the subgenual prefontal cortex of the brain, which researchers believe is associated with mental illness.
4. Hiking boosts creativity and problem-solving.
According to a study conducted by Paul Atchley, David L. Strayer, and Ruth Ann Atchley, hiking can boost your creative problem-solving skills. Participants went on a four-day backpacking hike in nature and were asked to perform tasks that required complex problem solving and creativity. While hiking and prohibited from exposure to electronics, participants saw a 50 percent increase in performance on these problem-solving tasks.
The researchers concluded that the hustle and bustle of urban lifestyles and the constant exposure to screens and technology could be dulling our ability to problem solve creatively. Fortunately, a nice big dose of hiking can help boost those problem-solving skills in no time!
Science backs the claim: hiking and spending time in nature can change our brains for the better.
Knowing what I do now, that hiking and spending time in nature can help our brains in such huge ways and that it’s all backed up by science, I think I’ll be getting outside and hiking a lot more often.